Come the Winter Session of Parliament,the expulsion of Mahua Moitra, firebrand Member of Parliament (MP) of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), from the Lok Sabha seems imminent. There is also a strong possibility that she may face criminal prosecution with the Lokpal having referred her case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).
Moitra’s denouement shows that the cocktail of political drive, energy, ambition, and arrogance in a politician can often lead to self-combustion. Moitra, although a voluble critic of the government, is politically small fry. Her expulsion is meant to send a signal to TMC chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, to tone down her anti-government rhetoric. Interestingly, Banerjee has carefully kept herself aloof from Moitra’s troubles. It is also a signal to other Opposition MPs to keep their criticism within the limits acceptable to the government.
Moitra’s political naivete has damaged theanti-Adani campaignof the Opposition. It generates a public impression that while targeting Adani, she was holding a brief for one of his business rivals — Darshan Hiranandani. This perception will hereafter shadow other critics of the government as well. Her claim of selective victimisation will not wash. The Indian political system does not allow anyone except MPs the right to question the government or its ministers in Parliament. This cannot be outsourced, certainly not to a businessman with or without vested interests.
Moitra’s claim that most MPs give their parliamentary log-in credentials to their secretaries is a lame excuse. The personal staff is accountable to the MP. A businessman sitting in Dubai is not. The number of logins to her Parliament account from Dubai does not credibly match the number of her visits to Dubai. Her defence is that though she shared her log-in credentials with her businessman friend, it was she alone who controlled the log-in because the PIN came to her mobile phone. That only means she knew when each log-in took place, not that she knew what happened subsequent to the login — what questions were posted on her behalf or whether any privileged material available only to the MPs was accessed by someone in Dubai. Not having secretarial help at hand is no excuse.
Moitra is also liable to criminal prosecution if she has accepted gifts of considerable value from Hiranandani. She has told the media, “To the best of my knowledge, Darshan Hiranandani has given me one Hermes scarf on my birthday…I asked (for) the Bobbi Brown makeup set, he had got me a Mac eye shadow and bitten peach lipstick.” If the gifts cost more than Rs 5,000 then there might be problems for her, their monetary value alone making her liable for prosecution.
In June 2012, the government notified the Foreign Contribution (Acceptance or Retention of Gifts or Presentation) Rules for VIPs under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. This apparently applies to MPs as well. The rules state that within 30 days of receiving a gift, the recipient must furnish details about the fact of having received a gift, the foreign source from which the gift was received, its approximate market value, the date and place of receiving the gift, and any other relevant details.If the gift is valued at more than Rs 5000, then it must be deposited with the government. The investigation agencies would have to then determine whether Moitra received the gifts in her personal or official capacity as an MP, whether Hiranandani can be considered a foreign entity by virtue of being resident in Dubai, whether the cost of a Hermes scarf was more than Rs 5000, whether the value of the gifts (makeup kits, eye shadows, lipstick, etc.) received and retained by Moitra over time should be counted together or individually, etc.
Alternatively, she may be prosecuted for a serious cash-for-questions misdemeanour. It may be difficult to establish a quid-pro-quo, that she accepted these gifts in return for asking questions that suited Hiranandani. A correlation, however, can certainly be deduced by her adversaries. That would, of course, leave ordinary people wondering why an MP of her stature should be accepting personal items from a businessman when she could easily buy them herself. Even if he were a close friend, she would have been well advised to keep him at an arm’s length given that he had a vested interest in cornering Adani, his business rival, whose alleged links with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s top leadership she was questioning in Parliament.
As the Speaker’s permission would be required for prosecution, a mere FIR by the CBI or any other investigative agency will not do. A chargesheet will have to be filed and the Speaker would have to be convinced that the charges indeed constitute criminal offences before giving his assent.
Moitra may complain that she wasnot treated fairly by the ethics committeeor that she was asked inappropriate questions by its members. She was no doubt targeted and once her weak spot was discovered, the establishment went for her throat. However, Moitra made the mistake of trusting Hiranandani, perhaps mistaking his vested interest in using her to target Adani, for friendship, without realising that he may also have skeletons in his cupboard which would make him vulnerable to pressure.
Moitra ’s case indicates that the leadership of the Union government has become ruthless. It allows criticism as long as it is general and does not find traction with the voters. Moitra is not only paying the price for not taking the basic precautions that legislators in public life must take, but she is also being strung up for attempting to hit the soft underbelly of those in power. Her claim that she will wear her expulsion as a badge of honour and return to Parliament with even a greater majority is yet to be tested. It remains to be seen whether the TMC, which has left her to defend herself, will field her in the 2024 general elections.
(Bharat Bhushan is a Delhi-based journalist.)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.
(Published 13 November 2023, 06:01 IST)