New Delhi, Dec 2 , Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury has urged Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla to review the ethics and privileges committees’ proceedings in view of Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra’s involvement in the alleged ‘cash for query’ scam.
In a letter to the Speaker on Saturday, just two days ahead of the Winter Session of Parliament commencing from December 4, Chowdhury, who is also the Leader of Congress in the House said, “I am writing with the primary intention of placing before you my views, which are being made in my personal capacity, on the need for having a re-look and appropriately reviewing and recasting the rules and processes that relate to the functioning of Parliamentary Committees that are primarily concerned with the interests and rights of Members of Lok Sabha viz., Privileges Committee, Ethics Committee etc.”
Chowdhury said that he has felt this to be necessary mainly in the light of the phenomenal coverage, scrutiny and analysis-substantial amount of which was unwarranted- that the working of the Ethics Committee of Parliament received in the matter of examining and reporting on the purported acts of misdemeanor on the part of a fellow Parliamentarian and colleague Moitra.
“Sir, as we know, the genesis of the Ethics Committee of Lok Sabha can be traced back to the 1990s with the idea of constituting such a Committee being first mooted at the Conference of Presiding Officers in 1997. It was in pursuance of the recommendations of the Privileges Committee of Lok Sabha that the Ethics Committee was set up for the first time in the 13th Lok Sabha with the intent of overseeing the ‘moral and ethical conduct of members’,” the Lok Sabha MP said.
He said while the Privileges Committee whose mandate is to safeguard the freedom, authority and dignity of Parliament and the Ethics Committee function as separate Committees or entities, in common parlance, and also for numerous official purposes, the term Privileges and Ethics’ continues to be used while referring to either Committee or both these Committees.
“Apparently, there is no clear-cut demarcation in the roles envisaged for the two Committees, more so, in the matter of exercising penal powers. Also, as on date, there is no clear definition of ‘unethical conduct’, and a ‘Code of Conduct’ remains to be formulated though envisaged under Rule 316 B of the Rules of Procedure.
These issues, inclusive of the procedures being followed by the Committee, which have a significant bearing and influence on the polity, may require deeper attention, and the processes streamlined under your guidance and directions,” he pointed out.
He said that before delving into the media reports and coverage pertaining to the examination of Moitra’s case by the Ethics Committee, and the issues that have been brought to the fore as a consequence thereof, it may, perhaps also be pertinent to recall that the rules and processes pertaining to the functioning of the Ethics Committee were formulated and firmed up for the first time when the Committee was functioning under the Chairmanship of Lal Kishan Advani.
The Congress leader also said that as on date, the Ethics Committee is functioning as a Permanent Committee in terms of Rules 233A and 2338 (Procedure for Ethics Complaints) and 316A to 316F (Constitution and Functions) un- like in the past, when it was an ad-hoc Committee which used to be constituted for a specified term Rule 233 A interalia stipulates that it shall be incumbent on any person or member making a complaint relating to unethical conduct of a Member of Lok Sabha to ensure that the complaint is not false, frivolous or vexatious and is made in good faith.
And as per Rule 316 it is incumbent on the Ethics Committee to conduct a preliminary inquiry on the matter referred for forming an opinion whether there is a prima facie case for taking up the matter for further examination, he said.
The process to be followed by the Committee in examining cases of misdemeanor, inter-alia include, conducting a preliminary inquiry, framing of charges on the basis of evidence adduced or provided, examining all the witnesses who are either direct parties or are related to the matter under investigation on oath, as prescribed under Rule 272, and keeping a signed or authenticated copy of verbatim record of proceedings of the sittings etc. where evidence of witnessses is taken, as per the procedure laid down under Rule 273.
Further, the Sittings of the Committee are held in private (Rule 266) and the proceedings are not to be divulged to the media or any outsider.
“As per records, prior to Moitra’s case, the Ethics Committee of Lok Sabha has dealt with a miniscule number of cases which mainly pertained to purported acts of deviation from the general norms of conduct with the punitive action recommended being confined to: admonition, reprimand and suspension from the Sittings of the House for a specified period,” Chowdhury said.
“If the media reports on the recommendations of the Ethics Committee on choosing to recommend expelling Moitra from Parliament are right, it would, perhaps be the first such recommendation of the Ethics Committee of Lok Sabha. Expulsion from Parliament, you will agree Sir, is an extremely serious punishment and has very wide ramifications,” he said.
He said that the purported act of misdemeanor on the part of Moitra, which is, sharing her log-in credentials and passwords for the “Official Portal” with a Dubai based Businessman to raise Questions in Parliament in retum for gifts or favors has also been compared and a parallel drawn with the 2005 case where 10 members of Lok Sabha were expelled for receiving cash for posing Questions in Parliament.
“The 2005 case as well as the case of HD Mudgal that dates back to 1951 i.e. the days of Provisional Parliament are fundamentally different not only in regard to the charges involved but mainly on account of the ‘mode’ or process of examining and reporting and the ‘significance of the evidence’. These differences, which have a substantial bearing on the present case of Moitra, on which the Ethics Committee has reportedly presented its report are highlighted,” he said.
In case of HD Mudgal as also the 10 Members who were charged of receiving cash for putting Questions in Parliament in 2005, the charges were examined and reported upon by separate committees of the House that were constituted for the specific purpose of examining and reporting on the charges against the Members, he said.
The 2005 cash for query scam which led to the expulsion of 10 members following a Motion adopted by the House was the fall out of a sting operation carried out by the News Site Cobra Post which showed the Members accepting cash for posing questions, that was aired on television channels.
He said that all concerned in the 2005 case, including the media personnel who carried out the Sting operation, and members accused of having indulged in acts of misdemeanor were examined on oath, their evidence recorded and made part of the report of the Panel.
It is not clear whether the well established procedure was followed and a money trail that is irrefutable has been established in case of the complaint or allegation against Moitra.
“The Dubai-based businessman who purportedly had access to the ‘log-in credentials’ of the Member to the Lok Sabha Portal and was placing Questions on her behalf was, as per reports, possibly not called by the Committee for deposing. It is also not clearly known as to why the Businessman chose to turn against the Member despite his interests apparently being served by way of posing questions by using the Log in credentials,” Chowdhury said.
Accepting gifts and giving gifts, which may appear to be expensive depending on the yardstick applied is a common social practice and it would be extremely difficult to link or attribute accepting gifts to be a money trial for deriving favours, he said.
The Congress leader also pointed out that the proceedings of the sittings of the Committee are strictly confidential with the rule being all the more relevant for strict adherence in case of a Committee investigating a very serious as well as extremely sensitive matter.
“Yet the Chairman of the Ethics Committee as well as the complainant member were openly parading their views and passing judgments even while the matter was under investigation and formulation of the findings and framing the report was underway,” Chowdhury said.
“Apart from the above, which are indicative problem areas or grey areas in the processes followed in investigating and reporting on the allegations leveled against Moitra, it is also a fact that advancements in, and adoption of digital technologies has brought about a sea change in the processes followed in conducting Parliaments Business, including the Question Hour, as a result of which Members may become susceptible, and unwittingly find themselves on the ‘wrong side’.
While members are to use the ‘official portal’ for placing Questions, secretarial assistance or the help of aides is a necessity for accessing and using the Portal for day-to-day Business of the House.
Even the most “tech savvy” Members may find it difficult, if not impossible, to use the Portal by oneself for placing Questions in Parliament, he said.
Chowdhury also pointed out that a question that is placed or given notice of by a Member is subject to scrutiny and becomes admissible only if it meets the conditionalities laid down in the Rules of Procedure (23 such conditionailities are listed under one Rule, viz., Rule 41), and is selected following the process of balloting.
“Given the facts pertaining to the examination of and reporting on the complaints of misdemeanor on the part of Moitra by the Ethics Committee, as they unfolded in the last two months, I would once again urge upon you to have the entire processes relating to the jurisdiction and procedures followed examined and such remedial measures, as needed, taken towards streamlining the functioning,” the Congress leader said.
He also said to ensure that Members do not become susceptible and find themselves on the “wrong side”, the entire protocols relating to the functioning of the Official Portal of Lok Sabha will have to be looked into and reviewed.