Wheels of justice must grind in the cash-for-query row
The controversy involving Mahua Moitra isn’t new. Such scandals rocked parliament in 1951 and 2005. Borrowing Nehru’s words, there can be no ‘laxity’ in the present case
The Mahua Moitra saga continues. The denouement is expected when the Speaker considers the report of the Ethics Committee, which investigated the accusations against her, and puts it before the House when the Lok Sabha convenes for the Winter Session. The last whistle will be blown when the House takes a call on the recommendations of the committee.
Because of the intense political battles being fought within parliament and outside, this committee has been notoriously ‘leaky’. Hence the unanimous media view that the committee has indicted Moitra and wants her expelled from the House.
Since independence, 12 MPs have been expelled from parliament for accepting payments to file questions—H G Mudgal in 1951 and 11 others in 2005.
Going by the facts and circumstances in these cases, the Ethics Committee has enough to rely on while taking a call on whether the MP transgressed the ethical standards expected of her. The MP is accused of sharing her parliamentary login credentials with businessman Darshan Hiranandani, who filed questions from his Dubai office, and accepting gifts and other benefits from him. The allegations in the Moitra case are different from those in the Mudgal Case and the cash-for-questions scandal that broke out in parliament in 2005, but the central accusation remains the same—accepting gratification for asking questions.
The first cash-for-questions scandal broke out in India’s provisional parliament in 1951, when H G Mudgal offered his parliamentary services to the Bombay Bullion Association for “canvassing support and making propaganda in parliament on problems like option business, stamp duty, etc”.
The scandal came to light when a board member of the bullion association informed Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that an MP was willing to drum up support for the association if he was paid ₹20,000. However, after much discussion within the board and some haggling, the board agreed to pay Mudgal ₹5,000 and set up a committee to work with the MP. When the scandal broke out, Mudgal had received ₹2,700 for his “services”, which included asking a question in parliament on behalf of the bullion merchants and seeking an interview for the president and directors of the association with Finance Minister Chintamani Deshmukh.
By then, Nehru had been alerted and he summoned the MP. Mudgal denied the allegations. Unconvinced by this explanation, Nehru moved a resolution for the constitution of a parliamentary committee to probe Mudgal’s conduct.
Nehru’s firmness in having the matter probed and the opinion of the Speaker tell us a lot about the value they attached to probity in public life in the 1950s. The Speaker wanted an open inquiry “so that the public may not have an impression that members of parliament are of low calibre and they are capable of accepting some kind of gratification or some kind of satisfaction to do the work in parliament”. When some MPs suggested in-camera proceedings, the Speaker turned it down and said that “it is no use keeping back from the public what our true colours are”.
The committee held Mudgal guilty, saying his conduct was “derogatory to the dignity of the House and inconsistent with the standards which parliament is entitled to expect from its members”. Since this was the first such case, Nehru said the House should not hesitate to express itself in an “unambiguous and forceful manner”. He moved a resolution to expel the member. However, Mudgal pre-empted the government by announcing his resignation on the floor of the House and walking out. The House adopted a resolution stating that his resignation constituted a contempt of the House which only aggravated his offence.
The incident in 2005 involving 10 members of the Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha MP was even more scandalous. An online portal called Cobrapost had heard that MPs took bribes to ask questions in parliament. It carried out a sting operation over several months and trapped 11 MPs who directly or through their office staff collected money to ask questions in parliament. TV channel Aaj Tak aired the results on December 12, 2005, leading to an uproar in political circles. The then Lok Sabha Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, immediately set up a committee to probe the issue. The committee summoned all the Lok Sabha MPs involved. The Rajya Sabha probed the allegation against its member separately. The Lok Sabha committee found that the MPs had demanded and taken sums ranging from ₹30,000 to ₹1.10 lakh to ask questions and that many of these transactions and negotiations were caught on camera. This was one of the most shameful episodes in the history of parliament.
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Following the reports, both Houses decided to expel the members involved. The Lok Sabha committee said that “however harsh it may sound, the continuance of these members as members of the Lok Sabha will be untenable”. It therefore recommended expulsion. Quoting Nehru in the Mudgal case, the committee said it would be “unfortunate” to show any laxity.
Further, the committee reminded parliament of the resolution adopted in the Lok Sabha in 1997 at the golden jubilee session which said that “continuous proactive efforts (must be) launched for ensuring greater transparency, probity and accountability in public life so that the freedom, authority and dignity of parliament and other legislative bodies are ensured and enhanced”.
Nehru’s words and the 1997 resolution are in a sense eternal truths and must apply to the present case. Moitra is accused of making available her parliamentary account to a business tycoon and accepting favours in return. The statement of the businessman—a virtual confession—and the circumstantial evidence available constitute a damning indictment of the MP. If the committee finds this evidence credible and holds her guilty, the consequences are likely to follow the trajectory of past cases. After all, Mudgal had taken just ₹2,700 for extending favours. There can be no “laxity” as Nehru said. The wheels of justice must grind, however harsh it may appear to the MP and her sympathisers. Further, since parliament has declared that it is committed to ensuring “transparency, probity and accountability in public life”, it will have to live up to this declaration.
A Surya Prakash
Vice-Chairman, Executive Council, Prime Ministers Museum and Library, New Delhi