Mahua Moitra finds herself in a legal and ethical grey zone

Surviving 'cash for query' scandal could be the biggest test of her political career

PTI02_06_2023_000143B PTI

Mahua Moitra’s petite build can be highly misleading. She has a jumbo-sized persona which has loomed large over Parliament and beyond ever since she arrived on the scene as a Lok Sabha MP of the Trinamool Congress in 2019. She has gained a reputation for taking on the ruling establishment fearlessly, with her no-holds-barred speeches in Parliament, demanding accountability from the government. She is feisty, known to give it back as good as she gets. And she is unapologetic about her love for the good things in life or for letting her hair down, which may be incongruous with traditional notions.

The entire case is built on Darshan Hiranandani’s affidavit.... Not allowing Moitra a chance to cross-examine him amounts to denial of natural justice. ― Bishwajit Bhattacharyya, former additional solicitor general of India

The 49-year-old investment banker-turned-politician is in the middle of a serious crisis, facing perhaps the biggest political challenge of her life. In the eye of a storm over a “cash-for-query” scandal, the Krishnanagar MP is on the verge of being expelled from the Lok Sabha. More importantly, her credibility and trustworthiness as a political leader are at stake.

Events, unfavourable to Moitra, have unfolded at a furious pace. Allegations that she accepted cash and expensive gifts from businessman Darshan Hiranandani to ask questions about the Adani group in the Lok Sabha, even sharing her parliamentary login credentials with him to post queries on her behalf on the Lok Sabha portal, first surfaced in the middle of October. BJP MP Nishikant Dubey had on October 15 submitted a letter to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, based on purported evidence provided by Moitra’s ex-partner, Supreme Court lawyer Jai Anant Dehadrai, in which he had detailed the above accusations. The speaker asked the Ethics Committee of the Lok Sabha to probe the matter, and on November 9, after three sittings, the panel adopted its report which is learnt to have recommended Moitra’s expulsion from the Lok Sabha.

In what is said to be a 500-page report, the panel is learnt to have taken into account the affidavit filed by Hiranandani in which he has admitted to using Moitra’s parliamentary login to post questions on the Lok Sabha portal and that Moitra took expensive gifts from him. It also considered the evidence provided by the complainants, both oral and documentary, and the assessment of the matter by the ministry of home affairs and the ministry of information technology. According to sources, there were contradictions between Moitra’s defence and the evidence placed before the panel.

Moitra has fought back fiercely. She admitted to having shared her login credentials with Hiranandani, whom she described as a friend. She has also agreed that she accepted some gifts from him. But she has vehemently denied the charge of asking questions in exchange for bribe. She has claimed that Dehadrai, whom she described as a “jilted ex”, is motivated by personal vindictiveness. She has accused Dubey of exacting political vendetta since she has often taken him on and raised questions about his “fake degree”. And she has charged the Modi government of wanting her out of the Lok Sabha at all costs because of the uncomfortable questions that she has constantly posed before it.

“The question is whether the dignity and propriety of Parliament will remain. This is about respecting Parliament. And the ethics committee is more worried about that than I am,” Dubey said after appearing before the panel on October 26 in response to Moitra’s claims that the complaint was guided by politics of vendetta.

The report of the committee is set to be tabled before the Lok Sabha when it meets for the winter session on December 4, and the house, in all probability, will accept it, paving the way for Moitra’s disqualification. However, experts have raised questions about the panel’s probe against Moitra, and it is being said that she has the option of seeking a judicial review.

Experts agree that if the main issue before the panel was the allegation that Moitra accepted illegal gratification in exchange for asking or facilitating questions on the Adani group from a businessman who is a business rival, it is definitely a serious matter, but wonder if it ought not to have been referred to the Committee of Privileges instead. They also say that merely sharing parliamentary login and password does not amount to any misdemeanour since it is not prohibited by any rules or any law.

“The allegation is that she took money to allow a certain businessman to ask questions, prepare questions on her behalf and ask those questions to promote his own business. It involves the question whether the privilege of Moitra as an MP was used by the businessman to further his business interests. If that is the case, it can amount to breach of privilege, and should have been looked into by the Committee of Privileges. The Ethics Committee has no jurisdiction to deal with the case,” said former Lok Sabha secretary general P.D.T. Achary.

As the money trail has not yet been established, and only gifts have been admitted to by both Hiranandani and Moitra, experts say it is extremely difficult to prove a nexus between gifts and the alleged misuse of parliamentary privilege. It has also been asked why the panel did not ask Hiranandani to depose before it and also why Moitra was not allowed an opportunity to cross-examine him. “The entire case is built on Darshan Hiranandani’s affidavit. It was only natural that he should have been asked to appear before the panel. Also, not allowing Moitra a chance to cross-examine him amounts to denial of natural justice,” said Bishwajit Bhattacharyya, former additional solicitor general of India.

The fightback by Moitra is gutsy. But she finds herself in a legal and ethical grey zone, clawing out of which will be an uphill task.