A controversy has been stoked over the nomination of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of parliament (MP) Pragya Thakur to the 21-member Parliamentary Consultative Committee on defenceheaded by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
Her nomination by the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs (MoPA) was announced on Thursday, along with that of Farooq Abdullah, former chief minister of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, who is currently detained along with numerous Kashmiri politicians under the stringent Public Security Act (PSA).
The opposition has criticised Thakur’s nomination to the defence consultative committee on the grounds that she is facing charges of terrorist activities, specifically in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blasts case, where six innocents were killed by an explosive device strapped to a two-wheeler that was registered in Thakur’s name.
While the National Investigation Agency (NIA) has dropped charges against Thakur under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act, Thakur continues to face multiple charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, Indian Penal Code, Arms Act and the Explosive Substances Act. Since April 2017, she has been out on bail, granted on grounds of ill health.
Contacted for a reaction to Thakur's appointment, the army declined to respond
The two houses of Parliament currently have 37 consultative committees, each affiliated to a separate ministry or department. According to the “Guidelines of Constitution, Functions and Procedures of Consultative Committees”, formulated by the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs in 2005, each consultative committee must have a minimum of ten and a maximum membership of 30 MPs. That effectively means that every MP is likely to be on at least one consultative committee.
Additionally, MPs with a special interest in a particular subject can be invited as a Permanent Special Invitee to the dealing ministry’s consultative committee, subject to a maximum of five such permanent invitees.
The consultative committees have “The objectives of creating awareness among MPs about the working of the government, of promoting informal consultations between the government and MPs, and to provide an opportunity for government to benefit from the advice and guidance of MPs.”
Consultative committees have little power to influence government. The US Congress standing committees effectively control budgets and can summon officials and citizens to provide testimony, with false testimony punishable for perjury. In contrast, the Guidelines state: “The Consultative Committees will not have the right to summon any witness, to send for or demand the production of any file or to examine any official record.”
“In India, MPs do little preparatory work before committee meetings, contribute little and often skip meetings with no questions asked,” says a senior MP, speaking anonymously.
Furthermore, the government can entirely disregard the committees recommendations that have financial implications “and any recommendation concerning security, defence, external affairs and atomic energy.”
Thakur has volunteered to serve on the defence consultative committee. According to the Guidelines, “Members must… send in their request to their party’s leader in their House of Parliament, who forward’s it with her recommendations to the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs. The ministry then notifies her membership, taking note of the vacancies, on a first-come-first-served basis.”
More powerful than consultative committees are parliament’s Departmentally Related Standing Committees. These consider, and report on, the budgetary allocation, and the Annual Reports of their affiliated ministry/department.
The Standing Committee on Defence has 21 members and is headed by BJP MP Jual Oram. Its opposition members include Rahul Gandhi, Abhishek Singhvi.