Herald View: The taming of Mahua Moitra
For our Parliament of men, Moitra was always a challenge: she spoke persuasively, her arguments often seemed hard to counter and her rhetorical flourishes often felt like a whiplash
Indian men seem to have a difficult time with independent, feisty women. Fact is: Mahua Moitra didn’t have to do anything much to make our still overwhelmingly male Parliament—only 78 of 542 members (or 14 per cent) are women—squirm and feel violated every time she opened her mouth to question the government’s shenanigans or the cosy relationship it has with their best beloved businessman.
It was bad enough that she spoke persuasively, that her arguments often seemed hard to counter, that her rhetorical flourishes often felt like a whiplash; it was too much that she had an enviable professional track, that she was unapologetic about her Louis Vuitton tote and her Zegna aviator sunglasses, that she walks with her head held high and makes heads turn.
For our Parliament of men, Mahua Moitra was always a challenge. Tokenism aside, beti bachao, beti padhao-style jumlas aside, we simply haven’t got used to the idea that women too have what it takes.
If you remember how Mamata Banerjee, another woman, also incidentally from the Trinamool Congress, and spunky in her own mould, was trolled by the prime minister himself during the 2021 state assembly election campaign in West Bengal, you’ll know who they take their cues from. Chances are the current Lok Sabha is, given its conservative, right-wing majority, independent India’s most chauvinistic House ever.
Even where parliamentary language, conduct, conventions and ethics are concerned, this House has set new, abysmal lows. Its record in keeping the executive in check, in raising issues of public importance, in holding meaningful debates and allowing the Opposition to have its say has been, in a word, pathetic.
Its failure to debate bills and allow parliamentary committees time to scrutinise them has been glaring. It also has the dubious distinction of not electing a deputy speaker, who is by convention from the Opposition and is more than just a deputy to the Speaker.
To top it all, the alacrity with which this Lok Sabha suspended Rahul Gandhi in March this year and has now expelled Mahua Moitra, but chose to wink at BJP member Ramesh Bidhuri’s abusive tirade against Danish Ali, then of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), shows how much it abides by institutional rules or standards.
Let’s examine the case against Moitra. A private complaint from Moitra’s estranged partner, backed by a BJP member, was first wrongly referred to the Ethics Committee of the House and not to the Committee on Privileges.
The Ethics Committee, then, failed to examine all interested parties. It did not allow Moitra to cross-examine the complainant and the ‘approver’. Instead it rushed through its investigation in less than two months. It found her guilty of a breach of rules that do not even exist.
Moitra was held ‘guilty’ of sharing her login credentials with her ‘friend’, a Dubai-based businessman, even though it’s fairly common for MPs to pass it on for routine tasks and there were no explicit rules to bar the practice. These rules were hurriedly put in place after Moitra had been pronounced guilty.
A tenuous connection was made out between questions she’d raised in the House—which incidentally are screened and selected and only then taken up by the Speaker for the government to answer—and the business interests of her ‘friend’. Which then became the basis of a leap-of-faith conclusion that the gifts she’d received from her friend were a quid pro quo to push his business interests.
The committee conjured up a ‘grave risk to national security’ because the members’ portal often holds draft legislation that the government plans to table in Parliament. Seeing that these are meant in any case for public scrutiny, and are no state secret, this conclusion was at best expedient.
A 495-page report by the Ethics Committee was placed in the House at noon on 8 December and taken up for a half-hour discussion barely two hours later. Moitra was not allowed to make a statement, and the Speaker turned down the Opposition’s reasonable request for more time to study the document.
Moitra could more reasonably be considered guilty of indiscretion and poor judgement, but there was nothing in the House rules to invite maximum punishment, delivered with the same kind of haste, the same impatience with any opposition, and, ironically, the same disregard for Parliament—and the democracy it supposedly showcases and upholds—that we have come to associate with this regime.