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Cash-for-Query Row: How Serious Are the Charges Against Mahua Moitra? What Next?

The Lok Sabha's Ethics Committee is scheduled to adopt a draft report in the Mahua Moitra case on Thursday.

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The 'cash-for-query' allegations made against Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Mahua Moitra have kicked up a political firestorm over the last few weeks.

After repeated delays, Moitra was summoned by the Lok Sabha's Ethics Committee on 2 November. Moitra's accusers, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey and her former friend Jai Anant Dehadrai, had deposed before the Ethics Committee on Friday, 27 October, submitting "evidence" against the Krishnanagar MP.

Dubey took to X (formerly Twitter) on Thursday, 8 November, to claim that the anti-corruption body Lokpal had ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the allegations against the TMC leader.

In this article, we look into the seriousness of the allegations made against Moitra, whether they have any legal standing, and the maximum possible punishment that could be imposed on the MP if she is found guilty of wrongdoing.

Cash-for-Query Row: How Serious Are the Charges Against Mahua Moitra? What Next?

  1. 1. How Serious Are the Allegations Against Mahua Moitra?

    BJP MP Nishikant Dubey has made primarily two allegations against Moitra based on Dehadrai's complaints. These are:

    1. That Moitra received gifts in cash and kind from real estate developer Darshan Hiranandani for asking questions in Parliament targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and businessman Gautam Adani.

    2. That she shared her Lok Sabha id and password with Hiranandani, which, according to Dubey, is in violation of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

    Do these allegations have any legal standing? Can Moitra be penalised if found guilty?

    Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde says that sharing login credentials is a standard practise among parliamentarians.

    "Sharing the login id with researchers appears to be part of the general modus operandi of a whole host of MPs," he told The Quint. "For instance, quite a few MPs are technically challenged. In actual operating procedures, personal assistants, researchers and other people associated with MPs use their login credentials to undertake Parliamentary work on their behalf."

    Does that mean MPs can share their credentials with just about anybody? Apparently so.

    "To the best of my knowledge, there is no specific rule on MP's sharing login credentials," Hegde said, adding that in the absence of an enforced rule, singling out just one MP (Moitra) amongst all others who follow the same procedure would seem to be an overkill.

    Further, the system to post questions on parliamentary portals online is quite recent. Hence, there hasn't been any precedence involving a similar case.

    "A member has to submit a question in a particular form signed by him or her with their identity number. The question can be delivered by someone on the member’s behalf, but it has to be signed by the member. The signature is verified and the question is then processed," PDT Achary, Secretary General of the 14th and 15th Lok Sabhas, told The Indian Express.

    With regard to the receiving of gifts, Hedge said that unless a quid pro quo is established between the questions asked and the gifts received by Moitra, there isn't a real case.

    For instance, Moitra's accusers will have to prove that a specific question or questions had a nexus with Hiranandani and his business interests. Hence, according to Hegde, three questions are central in this regard:

    1. What was the specific question asked?

    2. What was the gift?

    3. And finally, what was the timing of the question being asked and the gift being received?

    Expand
  2. 2. What Did Hiranandani Say In His Affidavit & What Was Moitra's Response to it? 

    In an affidavit submitted to the Lok Sabha's Ethics Committee, Hiranandani purportedly confirmed that Moitra, whom he called a "close personal friend", had shared her login credentials with him so that he could post questions on her behalf.

    Hiranandani also alleged that Moitra had made frequent demands, including "expensive luxury items, providing support on renovation of her official allotted bungalow in Delhi, travel expenses, holidays, etc, apart from providing secretarial and logistical help for her travels within India and to different parts of the world."

    Moitra, however, denied that she had received any luxury items from Hiranandani. She claimed that she had been gifted a scarf and some makeup items that the businessman had bought from Dubai Airport's duty-free store.

    However, she did confirm in an interview with India Today that she had shared her Lok Sabha login credentials with Hiranandani, adding that there was no rule prohibiting her from doing so.

    "An OTP [one-time password] comes to my phone only. It does not go to Darshan's phone. Only when I provide the OTP, the questions are submitted," Moitra had said.
    Expand
  3. 3. Could Mahua Moitra Have Cross-Examined the Complainant at Her Deposition?

    Moitra had stormed out of the Ethics Panel hearing on 2 November, alleging that the chair had asked her "unethical" questions and subjected her to "proverbial vastraharan".

    The Ethics Committee had already taken the statements of the complainants in the case i.e. Nishikant Dubey and Jai Anant Dehadrai. The committee also has the right to ask Hiranandani to record his statement before it.

    When Moitra was called to depose, she would have had the right to cross-examine the complainants and Hiranandani – something that she had already demanded publicly.

    The TMC MP had earlier cast aspersions on the authenticity of the affidavit purportedly submitted by Hiranandani to the Ethics Committee. She alleged that the Prime Minister's Office "held a proverbial gun" to the businessman's head and compelled him to sign a white paper.

    "Moitra is well within her rights to question whether there was actually an affidavit given by Mr Hiranandani of his own free will. For this, she can confront him face to face," Hedge had told The Quint. "That is a minimum standard of practice – any accusation must be made publicly and there should be a public opportunity of controversy."
    Expand
  4. 4. Mahua Moitra's Point-By-Point Defence

    After the allegations were made against her on 15 October, Moitra has given several interviews, in which she listed her detailed rebuttal. Some of the points she underlined, in an interview with India Today, include:

    1. Dehadrai, in his complaint, alleged that Moitra accepted Rs 2 crore in cash from Hiranandani for asking questions targeting Adani in Parliament. However, the affidavit submitted by Hiranandani to the Lok Sabha's Ethics Committee makes no mention of cash.

    2. Moitra's government bungalow was renovated by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and not by a private contractor, as was alleged. However, Hiranandani had recommended an architect who prepared four engineering designs for the CPWD.

    3. She had permitted the businessman's assistant in Dubai to type in questions on her parliamentary portal after sharing the OTP received on her registered phone number. Similarly, she had posted questions while being in Cambridge and Switzerland, taking advantage of the online submission system introduced in 2019. In this regard, she admitted to taking help from friends and relatives to key in the questions from remote locations.

    4. Moitra also said that Hiranandani has been a friend of hers since before she became an MP, when the Dubai-based businessman was not in competition with Adani.

    On Wednesday, 1 November, Moitra posted her letter to the Ethics Committee a day before she was scheduled to appear for the hearing.

    Expand
  5. 5. What Is the Maximum Possible Punishment That Can Be Imposed on Mahua Moitra? 

    The Ethics Committee is scheduled to hold a key meeting on Thursday, 9 November, and adopt a draft report in the Mahua Moitra case.

    Whatever the findings of the committee are, it itself does not have the right to impose punishment on the TMC leader. It will pass on its recommendations to Parliament, which will then decide on the matter.

    If Moitra is found guilty of wrongdoing, i.e. if it is found that she asked questions in Parliament on behalf of Hiranandani and was given gifts in return, the Parliament will have the right to expel her from the Lok Sabha.

    "There have been past instances, such as Raja Ram Pal case (2005), where the Ethics Committee recommended expulsion from Parliament and that was upheld by the Supreme Court," Hegde said.

    Raja Ram Pal and 11 other MPs had been expelled from the Lok Sabha in 2005 for allegedly being involved in a "cash-for-query" scam. They challenged the expulsion, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 2007 judgment.

    If expelled by the Parliament, can Moitra challenge the expulsion in a court of law? According to Hegde, that would depend on how the Ethics Committee frames its order.

    "Expulsions have been challenged, as in the Raja Ram Pal case – in which the argument was that there was no evidence leading to the expulsion and that the committee misread the evidence," he told The Quint.

    However, the committee could also merely censure Moitra or even acquit her. It all boils down to what happens during the proceedings.

    "There may be a recording of what a witness said to a policeman in the course of the investigation. But ultimately what counts is what the witness says in court," Hegde said.

    "While the Parliament is not a court, in such serious matters – which could have grave consequences like expulsion – there would have to be minimum standards met," he added.

    (With inputs from India Today, PTI, and The Indian Express.)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

How Serious Are the Allegations Against Mahua Moitra?

BJP MP Nishikant Dubey has made primarily two allegations against Moitra based on Dehadrai's complaints. These are:

1. That Moitra received gifts in cash and kind from real estate developer Darshan Hiranandani for asking questions in Parliament targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and businessman Gautam Adani.

2. That she shared her Lok Sabha id and password with Hiranandani, which, according to Dubey, is in violation of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

Do these allegations have any legal standing? Can Moitra be penalised if found guilty?

Senior Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde says that sharing login credentials is a standard practise among parliamentarians.

"Sharing the login id with researchers appears to be part of the general modus operandi of a whole host of MPs," he told The Quint. "For instance, quite a few MPs are technically challenged. In actual operating procedures, personal assistants, researchers and other people associated with MPs use their login credentials to undertake Parliamentary work on their behalf."

Does that mean MPs can share their credentials with just about anybody? Apparently so.

"To the best of my knowledge, there is no specific rule on MP's sharing login credentials," Hegde said, adding that in the absence of an enforced rule, singling out just one MP (Moitra) amongst all others who follow the same procedure would seem to be an overkill.

Further, the system to post questions on parliamentary portals online is quite recent. Hence, there hasn't been any precedence involving a similar case.

"A member has to submit a question in a particular form signed by him or her with their identity number. The question can be delivered by someone on the member’s behalf, but it has to be signed by the member. The signature is verified and the question is then processed," PDT Achary, Secretary General of the 14th and 15th Lok Sabhas, told The Indian Express.

With regard to the receiving of gifts, Hedge said that unless a quid pro quo is established between the questions asked and the gifts received by Moitra, there isn't a real case.

For instance, Moitra's accusers will have to prove that a specific question or questions had a nexus with Hiranandani and his business interests. Hence, according to Hegde, three questions are central in this regard:

1. What was the specific question asked?

2. What was the gift?

3. And finally, what was the timing of the question being asked and the gift being received?

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

What Did Hiranandani Say In His Affidavit & What Was Moitra's Response to it? 

In an affidavit submitted to the Lok Sabha's Ethics Committee, Hiranandani purportedly confirmed that Moitra, whom he called a "close personal friend", had shared her login credentials with him so that he could post questions on her behalf.

Hiranandani also alleged that Moitra had made frequent demands, including "expensive luxury items, providing support on renovation of her official allotted bungalow in Delhi, travel expenses, holidays, etc, apart from providing secretarial and logistical help for her travels within India and to different parts of the world."

Moitra, however, denied that she had received any luxury items from Hiranandani. She claimed that she had been gifted a scarf and some makeup items that the businessman had bought from Dubai Airport's duty-free store.

However, she did confirm in an interview with India Today that she had shared her Lok Sabha login credentials with Hiranandani, adding that there was no rule prohibiting her from doing so.

"An OTP [one-time password] comes to my phone only. It does not go to Darshan's phone. Only when I provide the OTP, the questions are submitted," Moitra had said.
0

Could Mahua Moitra Have Cross-Examined the Complainant at Her Deposition?

Moitra had stormed out of the Ethics Panel hearing on 2 November, alleging that the chair had asked her "unethical" questions and subjected her to "proverbial vastraharan".

The Ethics Committee had already taken the statements of the complainants in the case i.e. Nishikant Dubey and Jai Anant Dehadrai. The committee also has the right to ask Hiranandani to record his statement before it.

When Moitra was called to depose, she would have had the right to cross-examine the complainants and Hiranandani – something that she had already demanded publicly.

The TMC MP had earlier cast aspersions on the authenticity of the affidavit purportedly submitted by Hiranandani to the Ethics Committee. She alleged that the Prime Minister's Office "held a proverbial gun" to the businessman's head and compelled him to sign a white paper.

"Moitra is well within her rights to question whether there was actually an affidavit given by Mr Hiranandani of his own free will. For this, she can confront him face to face," Hedge had told The Quint. "That is a minimum standard of practice – any accusation must be made publicly and there should be a public opportunity of controversy."
ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

Mahua Moitra's Point-By-Point Defence

After the allegations were made against her on 15 October, Moitra has given several interviews, in which she listed her detailed rebuttal. Some of the points she underlined, in an interview with India Today, include:

1. Dehadrai, in his complaint, alleged that Moitra accepted Rs 2 crore in cash from Hiranandani for asking questions targeting Adani in Parliament. However, the affidavit submitted by Hiranandani to the Lok Sabha's Ethics Committee makes no mention of cash.

2. Moitra's government bungalow was renovated by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and not by a private contractor, as was alleged. However, Hiranandani had recommended an architect who prepared four engineering designs for the CPWD.

3. She had permitted the businessman's assistant in Dubai to type in questions on her parliamentary portal after sharing the OTP received on her registered phone number. Similarly, she had posted questions while being in Cambridge and Switzerland, taking advantage of the online submission system introduced in 2019. In this regard, she admitted to taking help from friends and relatives to key in the questions from remote locations.

4. Moitra also said that Hiranandani has been a friend of hers since before she became an MP, when the Dubai-based businessman was not in competition with Adani.

On Wednesday, 1 November, Moitra posted her letter to the Ethics Committee a day before she was scheduled to appear for the hearing.

ADVERTISEMENTREMOVE AD

What Is the Maximum Possible Punishment That Can Be Imposed on Mahua Moitra? 

The Ethics Committee is scheduled to hold a key meeting on Thursday, 9 November, and adopt a draft report in the Mahua Moitra case.

Whatever the findings of the committee are, it itself does not have the right to impose punishment on the TMC leader. It will pass on its recommendations to Parliament, which will then decide on the matter.

If Moitra is found guilty of wrongdoing, i.e. if it is found that she asked questions in Parliament on behalf of Hiranandani and was given gifts in return, the Parliament will have the right to expel her from the Lok Sabha.

"There have been past instances, such as Raja Ram Pal case (2005), where the Ethics Committee recommended expulsion from Parliament and that was upheld by the Supreme Court," Hegde said.

Raja Ram Pal and 11 other MPs had been expelled from the Lok Sabha in 2005 for allegedly being involved in a "cash-for-query" scam. They challenged the expulsion, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 2007 judgment.

If expelled by the Parliament, can Moitra challenge the expulsion in a court of law? According to Hegde, that would depend on how the Ethics Committee frames its order.

"Expulsions have been challenged, as in the Raja Ram Pal case – in which the argument was that there was no evidence leading to the expulsion and that the committee misread the evidence," he told The Quint.

However, the committee could also merely censure Moitra or even acquit her. It all boils down to what happens during the proceedings.

"There may be a recording of what a witness said to a policeman in the course of the investigation. But ultimately what counts is what the witness says in court," Hegde said.

"While the Parliament is not a court, in such serious matters – which could have grave consequences like expulsion – there would have to be minimum standards met," he added.

(With inputs from India Today, PTI, and The Indian Express.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Read Latest News and Breaking News at The Quint, browse for more from explainers

Topics:  TMC   Nishikant Dubey   Mahua Moitra 

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