Decoding the Lok Sabha Ethics Committee’s probe against Trinamool MP Mahua Moitra

What are the charges levelled by BJP leader Nishikant Dubey? Is the ethics committee the appropriate forum for such serious charges? What’s next for Mahua Moitra?

November 02, 2023 07:33 pm | Updated 07:49 pm IST

Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra speaking in the Lok Sabha during the Winter Session of Parliament, in New Delhi, December, 2022. (PTI File Photo)

Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra speaking in the Lok Sabha during the Winter Session of Parliament, in New Delhi, December, 2022. (PTI File Photo) | Photo Credit: PTI

The story so far: The controversy surrounding Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra over charges of cash-for-query has snowballed into a political storm, with the parliamentary ethics committee examining the allegations levelled by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nishikant Dubey against her. 

The matter surfaced earlier this month after Mr. Dubey accused the West Bengal MP of accepting cash and favours for asking questions in Parliament at the behest of a businessman. The Speaker in turn referred the matter to the Lok Sabha Ethics Committee for an investigation and report. The panel has since recorded statements of the BJP MP and another complainant, advocate Jai Anant Dehadrai. Ms. Moitra, meanwhile, has dismissed “false, malicious and defamatory accusations” against her, and is expected to appear before the committee on November 2.

Watch this episode of Talking politics where with Nistula Hebbar discusses inquiry into allegations of cash-for-query against Mahua Moitra

What are the allegations against Mahua Moitra?

Quid pro quo 

In his letter dated October 15, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey has alleged “direct involvement” of Mahua Moitra in the ‘cash for query’ in Parliament. Citing a letter he got from advocate Jai Anant Dehadrai, Mr. Dubey has claimed that there is “irrefutable evidence” that Ms. Moitra took bribes from the CEO of the Hiranandani Group Darshan Hiranandani to ask questions in the Lok Sabha. Mr. Dehadrai is an estranged partner of Ms. Moitra. The couple had a bitter separation and are presently locked in a legal battle over the custody of their pet dog. 

Targeting Adani, PM Modi to perpetuate business interests

Fifty of the 60 questions asked by the Trinamool MP in the Lok Sabha so far either protect or further the interests of businessman Darshan Hiranandani and his company, Mr. Dubey has alleged. “The questions were also often focused on the Adani Group, another business conglomerate, Hiranandani Group was bidding for business against,” the MP mentioned in his complaint to the Speaker. 

The “conspiracy”, the BJP leader claimed, includes “vehemently” targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi by constantly referring to the Adani Group, “giving the impression that she was critical of the government, possibly with the intention of seeking cover against her clandestine criminal operation.”

“After having meticulously gone through all the papers/documents, there is not an iota of doubt about a criminal conspiracy hatched by Ms. Moitra to garner and protect the business interests of a businessman — Shri Darshan Hiranandani — by asking Parliamentary Questions…” Mr. Dubey said, also referring to the infamous 2005 cash-for-question scam involving 11 MPs which came to light following a sting operation by a TV channel.

“… Now, with the unmasking of quid pro quo in the form of an ugly and deliberate motive of Ms. Moitra, to raise money from a businessman in lieu of asking questions in Lok Sabha, targeting another business group, it has become amply clear that the edifice of ‘morality’ being exhibited by Ms. Mahua Moitra was nothing but a ‘Machiavellian Camouflage’ for committing a crime by entering into a criminal conspiracy and at the same time enjoying the title given to Ms. Moitra as a ‘firebrand MP’, which is nothing but a sham,” he added.

Policy breach

The BJP MP has further accused Ms. Moitra of violating government policy, following her admission that she gave access to her online Parliament account to Mr. Hiranandani. Mr. Dubey has filed a separate complaint with the anti-corruption ombudsman Lokpal and approached the National Informatics Centre (NIC), alleging that Ms. Moitra’s parliamentary ID was used in Dubai when she was in India.

Dubai-based Darshan Hiranandani had earlier claimed in a signed affidavit to the Lok Sabha Ethics Committee that Ms. Moitra provided him with her login credentials so that he could “post the questions” “on her behalf when required”. The businessman added the TMC MP “thought that the only way to attack Sh. Modi [Prime Minister] is by attacking Sh. Gautam Adani and his Group as both were contemporaries and they belong to the same state of Gujarat.”

Mr. Dubey, meanwhile, shared screenshots of the e-mail policy released in 2014 by the Government of India on X (formerly Twitter) and termed the issue bigger than the cash-for-query scam of 2005. The cited Rule 7.2 under ‘Responsibility of Users’ states that sharing of passwords is prohibited and the user is responsible for any data/e-mail that is transmitted using the government of India e-mail system.

The allegation is a recent development and doesn’t find a mention in Mr. Dubey’s official letter to the Speaker. It came after Ms. Moitra admitted in an interview with The Indian Express that she shared her login id and password with the businessman so that someone in his office could type the questions and upload them on the parliament portal. “No MP types her/his own question,” she told the daily.

Why is the ethics panel probing the matter?

What are the panel’s powers: The roots of the Committee on Ethics can be traced to a resolution adopted at the Presiding Officers Conference held in New Delhi in 1996 where the idea to set up such a panel was formally proposed. Subsequently, the Rajya Sabha panel was constituted in 1997 and the Lok Sabha committee was set up in 2000. 

The ad-hoc panel of the Lower House oversees the moral and ethical conduct of the members, examines complaints related to the “unethical conduct” of a Lok Sabha MP referred to it by the Speaker and makes recommendations. The Committee also suggests amendments or additions to the Code of Conduct it was initially tasked with formulating. Notably, the rules don’t define the term unethical conduct. P.D.T. Achary, former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha, says it is entirely up to the committee to examine a particular act or conduct and decide whether it is unethical or not.

Most recently, the Lok Sabha committee met on July 27, 2021, to evaluate and decide on the Code of Conduct for its members.

Who can approach the panel: Any individual can make a complaint related to the unethical conduct of a member, but only an MP can forward it to the Speaker. The panel has a term of one year and comprises 15 members nominated by the Speaker. 

What is the precedent: The committee once recommended that the Speaker suspend an MP for 30 sittings after finding him guilty of unethical conduct. The complaint related to the MP taking a female companion along with him on a tour. Another matter related to an MP misusing a car parking label issued by Parliament was referred to the panel. The MP, however, apologised and the case was closed.

What has happened in the Moitra case: If an MP takes money for posting questions in Parliament, they are guilty of breach of privilege and contempt of the House and such serious complaints come under the purview of the Committee of Privileges, which deals with serious matters involving misconduct. 

Mr. Achary cites previous instances to argue that Mr. Dubey’s complaint should have been referred to the Committee of Privileges or other special panels. “In Ms. Moitra’s case, if the complaint is about her having accepted illegal gratification, then the case becomes a case of breach of privilege and cannot be dealt with by the ethics committee. Since a public servant accepting a bribe is a criminal offence, it is normally investigated by the criminal investigative agencies of the government. Parliamentary committees do not deal with criminal investigations. They decide on the basis of evidence whether the conduct of the MP is a breach of privilege or contempt of the House and punish them accordingly,” he writes in The Hindu

On Ms. Moitra sharing her parliamentary login credentials with another individual, he points out that the Lok Sabha hasn’t framed any rules to regulate the online submission of questions so far. 

“… an MP is free to engage any person to do his parliamentary work. He also does not have any obligation to disclose the sources from where he gets information to do his parliamentary work. Article 105 of the Constitution gives them the freedom to say “anything” in the House. This right should be deemed to be extended to the tapping of any source for information for putting questions up or framing Bills or resolutions to be placed in Parliament. Therefore, an investigation into the sources of information of an MP may not have a legal sanction,” adds Mr. Achary.

What happens next?

The committee has heard the two complainants and recorded oral evidence submitted by them. After hearing the Trinamool MP on November 2, the committee will examine if the matter needs further examination. The deliberation could go on for months. 

If the panel concludes that the complaint is valid and finds Ms. Moitra guilty of unethical conduct, it will present its recommendations to the Speaker in the form of a report. The recommendations will be laid before the Lower House, which will then debate and decide on the issue.

Past decisions of the ethics committee show that the panel recommends corrective measures such as suspension from the House, apology, or censure against the member found guilty of unethical conduct, as interpreted by the members of the panel at the time. It, however, doesn’t have punitive powers to prosecute the MP.

Besides the Lok Sabha panel probe, the complaint registered against Ms. Moitra with Lokpal remains pending. The anti-corruption body is responsible for looking into corruption complaints at the national level. 

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