Chopper deal: Why the government's JPC move is farcical

As the Congress-led UPA government made a determined push in Rajya Sabha for formation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter bribery case, Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley called it "an exercise in futility and a diversionary tactic".

His arguments set the tone for a rare opposition unity, with members from the Telugu Desam Party, the AIADMK, the Trinamool Congress, the JD(U) and the Left slamming the government’s unilateral idea of constituting a JPC. Their words may have been different but the message was same – the Congress has set afoot a cover up operation.

A walkout in protest by almost the entire opposition did not make the government relent. It pushed through a motion moved by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath, with CPI member D Raja pleading against it. The constitution of the JPC was adopted through a voice vote. Whether a JPC could be formed or start functioning without opposition members joining it is a matter of technicalities and rule books, but one thing is sure: it will become a completely farcical one-way exercise of the Congress and parties supporting it.

Defence Minister AK Antony after a debate on the matter of VVIP chopper deal  in the Rajya Sabha. PTI

Defence Minister AK Antony after a debate on the matter of VVIP chopper deal in the Rajya Sabha. PTI

Three questions arise: Why was the Congress so desperate to announce a JPC on its own; second, why did the opposition oppose it; and third, what has changed ever since a relentless BJP-led opposition stalled the entire winter session of Parliament demanding a JPC on 2G and the government kept on opposing it?

An answer to the Congress’s sudden fancy for constituting a JPC can be found in the points made by some of the opposition members. Arun Jaitley accused the government of waiting for 365 days in registering a preliminary inquiry to give an "opportunity to the bribe takers" to destroy evidence and still giving them a longer rope to further do the same by not registering an FIR. Trinamool Congress member Derek O'Brien called the move a "political cover up". AIADMK member V Maitreyan imputed motive by saying "if the government had shown urgency that it is showing for a constituting a JPC in registering an FIR in the case" the situation would have been different.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath, while moving the motion, announced that the JPC would work within a fixed time-frame and would submit a report within three months. There's indeed a big question mark over the deadline since the Union government with all the power at its command has failed to, at least officially, find any substantive information on the bribery scandal. The government is, ironically, still referring to media reports on the issue.

Why is the opposition against a JPC? A point against is that a JPC would take much longer than three months. It would take more than a year to arrive at any conclusion. By that time the term of the current Lok Sabha would expire and thus it would serve no purpose other than being a drain on the exchequer. Jaitley’s argument also seemed valid at another level when he contented that an investigation of this nature first requires registration of a criminal complaint, raids, arrests, custodial interrogation, extradition of accused persons and so on.

How could MPs sitting in a room find the names of bribe takers, which had to be among the decision makers in the government? What evidence can they call for at this stage? He reminded of the JPC on Bofors where its findings were contrary to those found in the criminal investigation.

The proceedings of the JPC in the 2G case suggest that things are decided more on predetermined political lines than on merit and since the ruling coalition will have majority of members on their side, there is always a lingering doubt on the final outcome.

Former Telecom Minister A Raja and his party, the DMK, is making pleas and has even urged Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar to make him appear as witness before JPC in 2G. CPI(M) leader in JPC Sitaram Yechuri has supported Raja’s demand to be called as witness. But JPC chairman PC Chacko (Congress) is apparently against calling Raja as a witness. He has told members that as an accused Raja has legal protection and cannot make fresh revelations before any committee. Therefore, there was no point in calling Raja. Congress members in the JPC are against calling Raja as a witness as his deposition could be used by opposition members, including the BJP and the Left, in cornering the government. Raja has maintained that he had kept the Prime Minister's Office and others informed about his decisions on 2G licencing.

The BJP and the Congress have been fighting for long inside the JPC for who should be called as witness. There BJP has alleged of hostile questioning of CAG Vinod Rai by some Congress members.

A great deal of time was lost in technical nitpicking at the very outset of JPC on 2G. The Congress members raised objections to the inclusion of Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha in the committee; an issue which ultimately was resolved by the Speaker who ruled that there could be no objection to their continuance in the JPC. Another contentious point that erupted shortly afterwards was a move by the Congress members to call former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and former Defence Minister George Fernandes as witnesses. On protest from the BJP these two names were withdrawn. This was a retaliatory move from the Congress to the BJP's demand for the presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then Finance Minister P Chidambaram as witnesses.

The BJP has walked out several times from JPC meetings. The CPM has also made its displeasure known. Former minister and BJP member in JPC Yashwant Sinha has gone on record saying "in the PAC the Congress abused Chairman in the PAC, in the JPC they wish to misuse the Chairman of the JPC. The message if very clear, indulge in corruption and cover it up." Opposition members suspect that the same or even worse could happen in a JPC on AgustaWestland helicopter deal.