Three men and a pet have nudged the Parliament to expel Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra from the Lok Sabha.
If the Lok Sabha Ethics Committee on November 9 recommended Mahua's expulsion from the Lower House for her alleged 'cash for query' deals, the three men (a 'jilted' ex, a 'dear' friend, and a wounded enemy) had a direct role in bringing about the decision. But it was the pet, a Rottweiler named Henry, that seems to have instigated the complaint against Mahua.
It was at the height of the custody battle for Henry that Mahua's former partner, Supreme Court lawyer Jai Anant Dehadrai, shared with BJP MP Nishikant Dubey what the MP called "irrefutable evidence" that Mahua had let businessman Darshan Hiranandani of the Hiranandani Group use her Parliament login to post questions that would serve his business interests.
It was said these questions were used to specifically attack Gautam Adani, Hiranandani's competitor. It was also said that Mahua took money from Hiranandani for the favour.
There was a reason why Dehadrai chose Dubey to share the evidence. In March this year, Mahua had accused Dubey of possessing a "fake degree" and a "dodgy PhD". And in most of her tweets, Mahua was in the habit of referring to Dubey as the "fake degree wala".
On October 15, Dubey wrote to Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla saying Mahua’s act of sharing her login and password has compromised national security. The Speaker asked the Lok Sabha Ethics Committee to take over. On November 9, the committee recommended the Trinamool MP's expulsion. The Lok Pal has asked the CBI to probe the bribe angle.
How did ethics panel reach its conclusions?
The panel termed Mahua's actions "highly objectionable, unethical, heinous and criminal", and recommended an official inquiry to uncover the cash flows to Mahua from Hiranandani for the questions she allowed him to post using her Lok Sabha ID. Unlike Dubey and Dehadrai, Hiranandani has not deposed before the panel nor has he provided any evidence to substantiate bribery claims.
The panel's conclusions were mainly based on the inputs from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The MHA submitted that several documents published on the Lok Sabha website were classified and could have been used against the country had they fell into the hands of foreign agencies. As examples, the MHA cited the Triple Talaq Bill and the Insolvency Code Bill that were accessible through the NIC (National Informatics Centre) portal long before these were passed in the Lok Sabha. A possible leak of such bills was a national security risk, it was said.
Further, it was said unauthorised access could potentially even lead to cyber attacks that could shut down Parliament.
Can Parliament expel a member?
After a heated debate over the panel report during which Moitra was not allowed to speak, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi moved a motion to expel the Trinamool member for "unethical conduct", which was adopted by a voice vote. (Mahua's Trinamool Congress, which is in power in Bengal, is the main rival of BJP in the state. The BJP-led NDA has huge majority in the Lok Sabha).
The Supreme Court had time and again emphasised Parliament's power to expel. Latest was in 2005 when Speaker Somnath Chatterjee expelled 11 MPs in the 'cash for queries' scam to hit India after the online portal, Cobrapost, caught on camera 11 MPs pocketing cash for asking questions. Six were from the BJP, three from Bahujan Samaj Party and one each from the Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal.
When the disgraced MPs argued that Parliament should not be granted such a sweeping power as it was likely to be abused, the apex court said: "It is well-established principle of law that the mere possibility or likelihood of abuse of power does not make the provision ultra vires or bad in law. A provision of law cannot be objected only on the ground that it is likely to be misused."
Kaul and Shakhder's 'Practice and Procedure of Parliament', the Bible of parliamentary procedures, too reaffirms the right of Parliament to expel a member. "In the case of its own members, two other punishments are also available to the House by which it can express its displeasure more strongly than by admonition or reprimand, namely, suspension from the service of the House and expulsion," the book says in the section 'Punishment of Members'.
The Parliament can expel a member but it cannot prohibit the person from contesting again.
Subramanian Swamy was expelled from the Rajya Sabha in 1976 for allegedly spreading deliberate falsehoods against India abroad. In 1978, then Prime Minister Morarji Desai moved a resolution in the Lok Sabha expelling Indira Gandhi. This, however, was rescinded in 1981 saying it was illegal and unconstitutional.
Other 'cash for query' scandals
The first 'cash for query' scandal happened in 1951, and it involved Congress MP H G Mudgal. A committee of inquiry found that Mudgal had taken money from the Bombay Bullion Association to ask what they wanted.
Mudgal’s conduct was considered "derogatory to the dignity of the House and inconsistent with the standard which Parliament is entitled to expect from its members". He resigned before the Lok Sabha could expel him.
Can Mahua seek judicial review?
She can. When the 11 MPs who were caught in the Cobrapost sting challenged their expulsion by Parliament, the Supreme Court had held that they had every right to question the Parliament's action.
"Under our Constitution, every action of every authority is subject to law as nobody is above law. Parliament is not an exception to this 'universal' rule. It is, therefore, open to an aggrieved party to approach this court raising grievance against the action of Parliament and if the court is satisfied within the limited parameters of judicial review that the action is unwarranted, unlawful or unconstitutional, it can set aside the action," the Supreme Court had said in 2007.
Charges against Mahua?
One, she has given her login credentials to an "unauthorised person", Darshan Hiranandani, to upload questions on her behalf. Two, she had allowed herself to be used by a businessman, Hiranandani, to undermine the businesses of a competitor, Gautam Adani. Three, she took money from Hiranandani for the favour of letting him ask questions through her Lok Sabha login.
Was Hiranandani given access to Mahua's login?
The MP has not disputed this charge. She herself has admitted that she had asked Hiranandani to help her with uploading the questions. "He has a large office with spare typists," she had said in interviews. She claims she had asked only for "typing assistance". She draws up the questions herself, Mahua insisted.
Further, she said even if the questions were uploaded from Hiranandani's side, these were posted only after she grants his office the OTP number that comes exclusively to her mobile.
Has Mahua erred in sharing password?
Technically, no. Legal experts and members of Parliament Onmanorama has talked to said that there were no rules regulating the online submission of questions. In fact, to establish the point, Mahua has asked the Lok Sabha Secretariat to disclose the regulations governing the sharing of an MP's login and password.
Further, even MPs conceded that most of them use help, especially interns or LAMPs (Legislative Assistants to Members of Parliament) provided by the private agency PRS Legislative Research, to upload questions on the portal.
Even then, many experts Onmanorama talked to pointed out that there was an ethical issue in using a corporate house to post questions. “An MP can seek information from any source for drafting questions but it should not look like the source was dictating the questions,” said a senior MP from Kerala.
Did Mahua accept gifts from Hiranandani?
Hiranandani has said so. He has regretted his association with Mahua on Parliament questions and had called it a "crazy error of judgment".
Hiranandani conceded that he found a business opportunity in exposing the Adani Group. In return, he said, Mahua demanded "favours, expensive gifts, support on renovation of her officially allotted bungalow in Delhi, travel expenses, holidays etc."
Dehadrai said Mahua had accepted super luxury items like Hermes and Louis Vuitton scarves, iPhones and even 35 pairs of Salvatore Ferragamo shoes. Mahua said it was just one Hermes scarf that Hiranandani had presented her, that too as a birthday gift four years ago. No phones or Ferragamo shoes. But there were other favours and gifts. Mahua listed four. One, make up items from duty free shops whenever Hiranandani flies down to India from Dubai.
Two, logistical and secretarial assistance, especially for Parliament questions and for routine documentation. Three, free drawings for her official bungalow. Mahua said these were given to the engineers of the Central Public Works Department for execution. Four, pick up and drop facility. She said whenever she landed in Mumbai, Hiranandani would send his car and driver to pick her up and later to drop her back at the airport.
Did Mahua target Adani for Hiranandani?
The Lok Sabha's 'Questions and Answers' page shows Mahua had asked 62 questions till date. Onmanorama found at least 10 that were either directly related to Adani or on topics the Hiranandani Group was interested in.
There were seven questions related to petroleum and natural gas, a sector where the Hiranandani Group, through its energy wing H-Energy, has made heavy investments. H-Energy is developing LNG re-gasification terminals and cross-country pipelines on the west and east coast of India. Adani, too, has investments in the sector.
However, some of these questions like details on city gas distribution networks and total subsidy for natural gas are information-seeking ones that could benefit all players, not just Hiranandani.
Nonetheless, questions on the Adani Group’s Dhamra LNG Terminal are clearly aimed at embarrassing both the Modi dispensation and the Adani group. Since there was no tender, Hiranandani was not a bidder for the Dhamra port.
Mahua has been a vocal critic of Adani's Dhamra operations. She had questioned why two leading public sector companies, Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL) were paying Adani a whopping Rs 46,000 crore as part of a 'take or pay' contract with the Dhamra LNG Terminal in Odisha. She wanted to know why these PSUs were paying Adani so much when the IOC had constructed such a facility at Ennore in Tamil Nadu for Rs 5151 crore.
There were at least two questions related to the terms of the Dhamra project. The latest one, which was taken up on March 23 this year, wanted to know what GAIL and IOCL would be paying Adani's Dhamra LNG terminal, and whether there was a 'take or pay' condition in the contract.
Another set of damning questions were asked on July 19, 2021. Mahua wanted the finance minister to give her the details of "ultimate beneficial ownership of Foreign Portfolio Investors (FPIs) owning stake in Adani Group companies". She also wanted to know "whether the FPIs and/or Adani entities are under investigation by SEBI, IT, ED, DRI, MCA for suspicious transactions".