Make-or-break meeting to decide the list of politicians and bureaucrats to be made witnesses

The Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2G spectrum allocation scam is set to question the Director of the Enforcement Directorate at its meeting scheduled for Tuesday. It may devote the rest of its time to finalising a list of all witnesses, from the NDA and UPA regimes, who need to be called.

The JPC has met infrequently — just 39 times since it was constituted in February 2011 — and secured the oral evidence of 14 non-official witnesses, who held office in the Department of Telecom (DoT) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), as well as that of the Finance Ministry, the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the Central Bureau of Investigation.

The JPC members are now divided on the future course.

At the last meeting held on June 19, JPC Chairman P.C. Chacko and Congress members Professor Kurien, A.R. Chowdhary and J.P. Aggarwal highlighted the urgency of the committee submitting a report by the end of the winter session of Parliament or December third week.

Congress spokesman Manish Tewari said the material available on record was sufficient to write a report, but if the list of political witnesses had to be finalised, it must be complete and comprehensive.

However, the Opposition — mainly led by BJP leaders Yashwant Sinha, Jaswant Singh and Ravi Shankar Prasad; Gurudas Dasgupta of the CPI; Sitaram Yechuri of the CPI(M); and Sharad Yadav of the JD(U) — have insisted that including the political leadership in the list of witnesses is crucial to the pursuance of truth, and this task can be accomplished before the December deadline.

In a make-or-break, the Tuesday meeting will determine whether the pursuance of truth and fair play will influence the ability of MPs across party lines to call their colleagues, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Telecom and Finance Ministers since 1998.

There are enough precedents of Union Ministers having appeared before parliamentary committees, including those relating to scams; yet the JPC on the 2G scam has witnessed acrimony over this issue. The Chairman of the JPC that was formed to examine the Harshad Mehta scam ensured that the then Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, appeared before the committee.

In the 2G matter, though the Prime Minister himself had volunteered, in writing in December 2010, to appear before the Parliamentary Accounts Committee, the JPC is strangely reluctant to summon him.

Mr. Jaswant Singh, Finance Minister in the NDA government, has even offered to step down from the JPC, so that he could be examined. Earlier, Mr. Arun Shourie, who was Telecom Minister in the NDA regime, and Mr. Jaswant Singh were questioned by the CBI in the 2G case.

The political leadership apart, a list of at least 15 senior bureaucrats, who served between 1998 and 2009, has been presented. They include, for the most part, the Telecom, Finance and Revenue Secretaries during 1999-2000, 2003-04 and 2007-08.

The real challenge for the JPC emerges from its broad terms of reference: “to examine irregularities and aberrations, if any, and the consequences thereof in the implementation of government decisions and policy prescriptions from 1998 to 2009.” Given that nearly all crucial and several controversial decisions since 1999 have been taken at the ministerial level, and at times with the Prime Minister directly engaged, it would virtually be impossible for the JPC to submit a meaningful report without questioning the Ministers concerned. Any interpretation or adverse remark on the working of a former Minister or a bureaucrat without his being given a chance to explain goes against the principles of natural justice and could dent the creditability of the JPC’s report.

Tuesday’s discussion will hopefully rise above the several low points of the last meeting, wherein the UPA members made allegations of “political motivation” and the demand to summon the former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as a witness. It is well known that Mr. Vajpayee has serious health issues and is confined to his residence.

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