The “Cash for Questions” controversy in India involving the feisty opposition MP from West Bengal, Mahua Moitra, is now roiling the country’s polity.
The Parliament’s Ethics Committee recently found the 49-year old corporate executive turned politico, guilty of asking scores of questions on the alleged nexus between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and business tycoon Gautam Adani in return for cash and other goodies from Adani’s business rival, Darshan Hiranandani.
The committee, in which six of the 10 members were ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) MPs, recommended to the Speaker, Moitra’s dismissal from Parliament for conduct that it deemed both unethical and a national security risk.
The committee’s report said that Moitra had put the country’s security at risk by giving her parliamentary email Log-in and Password to the Dubai-based Hiranandani so that he could input his questions himself.
But even as it recommended Moitra’s ouster from the House, the Ethics Committee urged the Indian Government to conduct a “time-bound, intense, legal and institutional inquiry” to find out if there was a money trail. In other words, the panel had recommended sacking the MP without being in possession of all the facts.
The panel’s recommendation for Moitra’s ouster from the House will be taken by Parliament when it meets for the Winter Session from December 4 to 22.
Dimensions of the case
The Moitra case has two dimensions: legal and political. The outcome on both counts is unpredictable. For one thing, the law on dismissal from Parliament is not crystal clear, and therefore, she can challenge her dismissal in the Supreme Court. For another, Moitra is a controversial figure who excites jealousy as well as admiration. Therefore, wider political support for her is not automatically assured although the alleged Modi-Adani nexus is a major political issue in the run-up to the parliamentary polls in May 2024.
Legal opinion is that Moitra’s case should have been referred to the Privileges Committee, which is the only committee with a mandate to look into alleged breaches of privilege and contempt of the House. The Ethics Committee has been dealing only with less serious questions of propriety.
As Moitra said, there is no rule yet about MPs’ giving their parliamentary Log-ins and Passwords to non-MPs. MPs do share these with their secretarial staff, at least. The accusation that Moitra had compromised national security by giving her Log-in and Password to a person based outside India can also be challenged because Hiranandani is not a foreign national. He only has permanent residency in Dubai.
If Moitra had indeed taken money or any material consideration for asking questions, she could be prosecuted under criminal law. But the Ethics Committee had itself said that its charges about there being a money trail remained to be investigated by competent government agencies. Clearly, the panel had recommended her expulsion without ascertaining the full facts.
Moitra had been denied “natural justice” also because she had not been allowed to cross-examine the complainants, Hiranandani and lawyer Jai Anant Dehadrai.
If Parliament sacks her, Moitra can go to court. But it is not clear if the court will entertain her petition because Parliament is deemed to be constitutionally autonomous. On the other hand, in the past, the court has intervened to enforce natural justice.
Moitra, Darshan Hiranandani and Jai Anant Dehadrai were close friends. Moitra fell out with Dehadrai over a pet dog they shared. After blazing quarrels, Dehadrai complained to the Ethics Committee of Parliament that Moitra was taking money, other gifts and favours from Hiranandani for asking questions on the Modi-Adani nexus. Since 2019, she had put 61 questions on this subject at the instance of Hiranandani in exchange for gifts and other favours, he said.
Initially, Hiranandani completely denied the allegation in a statement he put out. But two days later, he mysteriously retracted his denial and submitted an affidavit to the Ethics Committee reiterating the charges Dehadrai had made. Hiranandani became an approver, giving rise to speculation that a powerful person had influenced him.
Moitra vehemently denied the charges made against her and demanded that she be allowed to cross-examine Hiranandani and Dehadrai. But the Ethics Committee turned down the demand.
She said that the 479-page report of the Ethics Committee gave no details of the money allegedly given to her. The committee had itself said that the alleged money trail should be investigated by government agencies in a time-bound manner. Moitra wondered how the committee could recommend her sacking from parliament when the charges were still to be investigated.
She said that only the Privileges Committee could recommend her dismissal and not the Ethics Committee.
She also complained that she was subjected to misogynous questioning forcing her to walk out of the proceedings at one stage.
Moitra contended that the “gifts” she had requested were only cosmetics from duty-free shops. Tongue in cheek, she welcomed the authorities to count her shoes instead of investigating the scams Adani was involved in.
On Hiranandani’s helping her renovate her official residence in New Delhi, she said that she had only sought architectural advice from him. The renovation as such was done by the government’s public works department free of cost.
Since the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has an overwhelming majority in Parliament, Moitra has no chance of surviving in the House if the issue is put to vote in December.
As on date, Moitra is battling her detractors alone, even as she is badgered by a raucous and largely pro-government media.
And how far will the opposition go in supporting her? The only other MP who attacks the Modi-Adani nexus regularly is the Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Most other political leaders fight shy of taking on India’s rulers and influential business honchos for fear of investigations by State agencies. Immediate arrest and incarceration appear to be the rule and bail a rarity, a system which gags critical voices. In fact, the opposition parties have knocked at the doors of the Supreme Court to secure justice.
Moitra is not lacking in publicity. She is interviewed by Indian TV and YouTube channels incessantly. But media exposure may not necessarily result in public support for her, if she does not get the backing of her own party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), and the opposition alliance I.N.D.I.A.
Although the Moitra affair has been in the headlines for weeks now, the TMC came out in her support only very recently, and that too very feebly. Most tellingly, there has been stony silence on the part of the TMC chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to date.
Banerjee had earlier ticked off Moitra for disobeying the party diktat in her constituency Krishnanagar. It is also reported that senior TMC leaders see Moitra, a top-flight English-speaking lady from the corporate world, as a political upstart who has a tendency to go beyond her brief in projecting herself rather than the party. This is considered a cardinal sin in party politics.
Interestingly, one of the allegations made by Hiranandani was that Moitra was hammering Modi and Adani only to be in the limelight and further her political career.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Moitra, albeit faint. Last week, the TMC made her the President of the party unit in her constituency Krishnanagar.
As regards the 27-member opposition combine, I.N.D.I.A, is quiet on Moitra’s plight, though I.N.D.I.A chief Rahul Gandhi has been hammering Modi and Adani day in and day out rather like Moitra. Perhaps the opposition parties would have liked Moitra to coordinate her campaign against Modi and Adani with them rather than going solo and trying to hog the limelight.
It is also noteworthy that Moitra had initially joined the Congress on coming back from abroad seeking a political career. But she ditched the Congress soon enough and joined the TMC, which is the ruling party in her home State of West Bengal.