Opinion: Mahua Moitra's Conduct Compounds Ethics Case - Will It Attract Contempt?

Mahua Moitra may have lost her opportunity to defend her conduct before Lok Sabha's Ethics Committee with her behaviour during the proceedings and her subsequent stomping out of the meeting room while heaping allegations against the panel's chairman, Vinod Sonkar, to waiting media persons. She was her usual hyper persona, visibly annoyed and even gesticulated at television cameras.

The panel is in the process of finalising its report, which will be submitted to the Speaker, who, if satisfied with it, may place it before Lok Sabha during the Winter Session for necessary action. Moitra's behaviour after she left the meeting, her utterances, and the statement of the chairman and members of the panel indicate that apart from breach of ethics, for which she is arraigned, the charge of committing an act of contempt may also arise, throwing up issues related to the privilege of parliament. Larger questions on crony capitalism may also emerge.

Moitra's demeanour seemed to reflect Shakespeare's words in Macbeth, "It's all sound and fury, signifying nothing". While she was walking out, she was accompanied by five members of the panel belonging to parties constituting the opposition 'INDIA' alliance, who, breaking with the norms of parliamentary committees, disclosed that Moitra had reason to feel chagrined by the 'line of questioning' adopted by Sonkar.

On his part, Sonkar, leaving after the disrupted proceedings, told reporters in response to their questions that Mahua Moitra had displayed anger and used unparliamentary language against him and other members. The BJP's Aparijita Sarangi, who was by his side, confirmed this and called out two non-BJP MPs, who were among the five who walked out with Moitra, for filibustering.

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Hours after her walkout, Moitra, while accusing Sonkar of misogyny, and saying BJP members were hostile, expressed gratitude towards the two women BJP members on the panel, Aparijita Sarangi and Sunita Duggal, saying, "They did not say a word". TV cameras have recorded Aparajita Sarangi's endorsement of Sonkar's anguish. Perhaps Moitra's hyper behaviour had stunned her into silence in the meeting hall.

Parliamentary committee meetings are held in-camera. MPs are not expected to divide on party lines. Unlike in the US, where open hearings are conducted, the media only learns about the outcome of these meetings when a report is placed on the table of the House.

In the Mahua Moitra case, all rules seem to have been abandoned. First, Moitra, who was deposed, went public. Five members of the panel who walked out with her, while endorsing her, breached the rules. Chairman Sonkar perhaps had little choice when the media asked questions, as what transpired inside the meeting room had been laid bare by the time he came out.

Nishikant Dubey, the MP on whose complaint the Ethics Committee acted, posted on 'X': "Chairman of the Ethics Committee, who belongs to the Scheduled Castes, found Mahua's language abusive." Dubey pointed out that Moitra had referred to him on the floor of the House as a "scoundrel", and had even called him a "Bihari goonda". On October 27, a day after the panel summoned her, Moitra, clarifying her position to a TV anchor, referred to a "Jharkhandi Pit Bull". Dubey represents Godda in Jharkhand.

Moitra's October 27 TV interactions, recorded at her New Delhi residence, made the panel insist on November 2 as the date of hearing. Earlier, when the summons was issued, Moitra had pleaded that she was busy with post-Dussehra events in her constituency till November 5, and the panel seemed inclined to wait. Her presence in New Delhi was at variance with her plea for postponement and the panel chairman was quick to set up the hearing as the panel is expected to report back to the Speaker expeditiously.

On November 2, apparently, the two pre-lunch hours were utilised by Moitra to state her case. In her defamation case against complainant Jai Anant Dehadrai (whom she refers to as a 'jilted-ex') and Dubey, she has referred to her personal life, and apparently, her testimony on November 2 focused on the same argument.

In the post-lunch session, based on her testimony, questions related to her personal life figured. This infuriated her. Chairman Sonkar had a report of the Information Technology ministry, which listed 47 occasions when Moitra's Lok Sabha ID and password had been accessed from overseas, in Dubai. As the use of the portal for parliamentary questions entails an OTP on the MP's phone for verification, a number of short-duration phone calls made late at night, coinciding with the OTPs (perhaps the calls shared the OTP ) were also on Sonkar's agenda. Moitra was enraged and alleged that a lady's late-night phone calls were being pried on. And instead of clarifying her position, she stomped out. The fact that she did share her parliamentary log-in details with Darshan Hiranandani, a businessman, was not denied. In her media interviews, she has admitted to having done so. Her plea is that she represents a 'remote' constituency and was using the secretarial services of Hiranandani's office to dictate questions, which were thereafter filed with the Lok Sabha secretariat from Dubai.

Moitra represents Krishnagar, which is around 100 kilometres from Kolkata, a four-hour drive along National Highway 12. Krishnagar is part of Kolkata's suburban rail system. The apparently well-educated Mahua Moitra, who is computer savvy, could not find a reliable steno-typist within Indian shores and thus relied upon Hirnandani's secretary in Dubai.

While sharing her log-in details, this US-educated MP overlooked Rule 7.2 of the "E-mail policy of the Government of India", published in 2014, which prohibits the user of a portal run by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) from " sharing password details". It states that the "user is responsible for any data/e-mail that is transmitted". A copy of the policy document is shared with all users, including MPs when they are granted access by NIC.

Moitra is a member of the Information Technology panel of parliament. Hiranandani is in the IT sector. The hypothecation of her ID therefore also opens up the possibility of Hiranandani gaining access to the proceedings of the panel, in which the government shares classified information.

Dehadrai's testimony reveals that apart from the Hiranandani factor, in which Moitra allowed a businessman to post 51 questions on his rivals, the Hindenburg report, which shook the foundations of India's stock market and caused a huge loss to many common shareholders, contained five direct references to complaints filed by Moitra on the Adani group.

As a result of the Hindenburg report, while India's small investors suffered losses, short-sellers made crores of rupees by going short just before the report surfaced. Identifying these short-sellers and their accomplices is imperative to the future health of India's economy. Could there have been a quid pro quo behind those who cooperated with Hindenburg and the profiteering by short-sellers? This is the interesting collateral of l'affaire Mahua Moitra.

The Ethics Committee has a yeoman task on hand. The findings in the Mahua Moitra case will have long-term repercussions on the functioning of India's parliament and polity.

(Shubhabrata Bhattacharya is a retired Editor and a public affairs commentator.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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