Mahua Moitra's expulsion: Making sense of the 500-page Ethics Committee report
Wrapping up its inquiry in record time — 3 meetings in less than a month, the last one just 5 minutes — the Lok Sabha ethics panel left several questions unanswered
One question that persists is why the Parliamentary Ethics Committee did not see fit to call and examine the Indian citizen who admitted to have bribed an MP ‘against his will’.
The affidavit deposited by Darshan Hiranandani says, judging by media reports, that he was 'forced' to submit to the demands of minister of Parliament Mahua Moitra of the All-India Trinamool Congress; that he couldn’t say ‘no’, since she has a domineering personality.
If these reports are true, then Hiranandani cannot actually be accused of having ‘bribed’ the MP to ask questions—can he? Yet that is substantively the basis on which the ethics committee has recommended her suspension, expulsion or termination — nobody really knows which till the report is laid before the Lok Sabha on 4 December, the first day of the winter session — from the House.
Nor has the committee examined the 62 questions put up by Moitra to find out how many of them were asked at the behest of Hiranandani and what is his interest in putting those questions specific questions up remotely, allegedly on behalf of Moitra. If no such links or interest can be established, then Moitra’s plea that she had merely used secretarial assistance from Hiranandani’s Dubai office would gain greater legitimacy. Without it, the committee's decision stands on shaky grounds, surely?
The panel, in any event, did not summon Hiranandani, nor found it useful to cross-question him. That task has been left to the central agencies, such like the income tax department, the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation, besides the home ministry.
All of these agencies can now take their time, summoning both Moitra and Hiranandani, searching their premises, scrutinising their account books... while the inquiry hangs like the proverbial Damocles’ sword over their heads.
One of the four Opposition members on the Ethics Committee, Giridhar Yadav, has claimed that he and other members had demanded that Darshan Hiranandani, businessman and industrialist with residentiary permit in Dubai, be called by the panel and examined. Despite assuring the Committee that Hiranandani would be called, he said, the chairman did not follow up on that promise.
The 500-page final report prepared by the Committee was adopted in less than 5 minutes by 6 votes to 4 on Thursday, 9 November. Little to no time was given to the members, apparently, to actually read the report before concurring or dissenting. There was no deliberation either, of course, and the decision appeared to have been... pre-decided.
Yadav also lamented that on 2 November, when Lok Sabha Member Mahua Moitra — accused of unethical conduct and asking questions in exchange for cash and gifts from Hiranandani — appeared before the panel, questions were put to her from a prepared script by the chairman alone. Not one of the three women MPs present at the meeting asked any of the questions, which Moitra claimed were of a vicious, unethical and misogynistic bent — enough for her to walk out, as well as several of the Opposition MPs on the panel.
A BJP member on the panel, Aparajita Sarangi, a former IAS officer and the MP from Bhubaneswar, clarified that other members panel would have taken their turn after the chairman had completed asking his questions. However, Moitra — so Sarangi said — had lost her cool over the allegedly "unethical and personal" questions, called the chairman names (behuda and besharam, ridiculous/random and shameless) and stormed out, interrupting the meeting.
Darshan Hiranandani, Sarangi said, would be examined by the central agencies expected to look into the money trail.
Yadav, however, wondered why in that case lawyer Jay Anant Dehadrai, who had first accused Moitra of accepting cash and gifts from Hiranandani, was examined by the committee. Surely that could have been left to the agencies likewise?
There is also no explanation as to why Hiranandani had rubbished the allegations in a statement on 16 October, but a day later rushed to the Indian consulate in Dubai to file an affidavit.
The affidavit, Moitra pointed out, made no mention of cash and only vaguely mentioned 'gifts'. She has alleged that Hiranandani was blackmailed, threatened and coerced to sign the affidavit. "The PMO held a gun to his head," she had claimed.
The JD(U) MP, a three-term MP from Banka in Bihar, also told a TV channel that every MP receives gifts from people known and even unknown to them. He pointed out that often expensive gifts are even delivered to the residences of MPs when they are away in their constituencies or are on tour. “If somebody sends gold and silver as gifts, does that mean that the MP is guilty of having accepted bribes,” he stated. (Remarkably, there is no code of conduct defined for MPs with regard to accepting gifts, be it from business houses, PSUs or individuals.)
Several MPs are indeed known to be close to specific business houses and also known to use these contacts to arrange private jets and other favours at short notice, and not always due to an emergency.
But back to the matter at hand: The inquiry against the beleaguered Mahua Moitra, then, has been completed with exemplary speed — though the Lok Sabha Speaker has been sitting on several other complaints of unethical behaviour without referring them to the Ethics Committee or the Privileges Committee yet. For Moitra, the first complaint was made on 15 October and the ethics panel held three meetings (on 27 October, 2 November and 9 November) to file its 500-page report.
The report banks heavily on the alleged misdemeanour by Moitra in sharing her login and password for the Members’ portal with Hiranandani in its indictment of her. The allegation that she received cash and gifts from the businessman has been held in abeyance, awaiting a 'forensic' examination by the central agencies.
In simple terms, the Ethics Committee has provided a pretext to the central agencies to conduct a 'fishing expedition' against both Moitra and Hiranandani by keeping its decision on this allegation pending.
Expulsion from Parliament is unlikely to end Moitra's travails, then. And possibly inviting Hiranandani for a direct cross-examination before the panel would have defeated this agenda?