India's Engagement With The World-Part 2

Role of Parliament in Execution of Foreign Policy

India's Parliament plays a lesser role in formulation and execution of foreign policy than in other parliamentary democracies. This is not what the founders of modern India envidaged. The record of discussions in the Constituent Assembly soon after Independence shows that India's founding elite wanted Parliament to be supreme in the conduct of international affairs. H.V. Kamath, a member of the Constituent Assembly, argued: "I am sure that Parliament will ultimately decide our international relations. It is neither the executive nor the President but Parliament which will have the final word on what our foreign relations are going to be, what our international policy is going to be."

Kamath's sentiment was shared by other Constituent Assembly members and, as a result, Articles 246 and 253 of the Indian Constitution empowered Parliament to legislate all aspects of foreign affairs including implementation of international treaties, agreements and conventions.

In practice, however, the conduct of Indian foreign policy rests with the executive branch of government even as the Ministry of External Affairs is subject to parliamentary oversight like all government ministries. Parliamentary oversight is exercised through discussions and debates on the floor, as well as through question hour -- the time set aside during Parliament's deliberations for PM's to question ministers on their department's performance. Parliamentary Committees on External Affairs and Defence also act as instruments of parliamentary oversight.

The parliament discusses and approves bills introduced by the Ministry of External Affairs, asks questions on issues and also studies and discusses the annual report of the Ministry of External Affairs before approving it.

Those who crticise parliamentary oversight note that in almost every democracy most politiciqans are oriented towards domestic issues and they have relatively little knowledge or awarnesss of foreign affairs. As a result, parliamentary debates on foreign policy are not alwatys based on hard facts or an objective assessment of reality. They often become an opportunity for the opposition to criticise the government or the party in power.

One way of building up a group of politicians who are knowledgeable about and have experience of foreign policy is through the committee system. There are two committees for external affairs, the consultative committee and the standing committee.

The origins of the consultative committee come from a practice started by Nehru who used to periodically consult with close parliamentary colleagues on aspects of foreign policy before he introduced that policy in Parliament. Lal Bahadur Shastri continued this policy. However, there was a backlash from members of parliament who demanded the establishment of formal consultative committees instead informal consultation. In 1969 parliamentary consultative committees were set up.

The consultative committee is ideally supposed to be comprised of representatives of all political parties roughly in proportion to their strength in Parliament. The current Parliamentary Consultative Committee on External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs is chaired by the Minister for External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs.

The Standing Committees too have proportionate representation from both the Houses of Parliament. The current Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs is chaired by a member of the opposition, and has nineteen members of Parliament from the Lok Sabha and eight from the Rajya Sabha. The Standing Committee has the power to call the officials to testify before it. It looks over the annual reports of the Ministry of External Affairs, can ask questions about budgetary allocations and also has a veto over the budget of the Ministry of External Affairs. This Committee submits its annual report to the Parliament.

Supporters argue that the standing committee is like a mini Parliament and through it the Parliament exercises control over the conduct of foreign policy. They argue that these committees enable detailed discussions of issues, create an environment where a small number of people, politicians and bureaucrats, can sit and discuss issues.

Critics assert that what the committee achieve depends upon how interested parliamentarians are in foreign policy issues and how willing they are to contribute to discussions on foreign policy. According to former diplomats, most parliamentarians are interested not in broad issues of foreign and security policy but rather in issues like passports, visas, cultural exchanges, and of course on any issues to do with India's neighbours because all these have a domestic dimension. While the committee can call officials it does not have the power to call a minister or the Prime Minister.

According to most analysts, parliamentary oversight is not as intense as it used to be in the early years. According to academics and former diplomats, Nehru would always be in Parliament to answer questions and would never miss question hour unless he was out of town. After Nehru, however, most Prime Ministers have preferred to avoid parliament when they can. Further, while all ministers, including Ministry of External Affairs, provide answers to parliamentary questions, accountability is not what it used to be or what it should be. Thus the only time the Parliament is really interested in foreign affairs is when it is a critical issue.

Source : CSC August 2018 issue