It is difficult to believe that there has been no listed ‘code-of-conduct’ for the directly elected representatives of Lok Sabha since the country held its first general elections between October 21, 1951 and February 21, 1952. Paradoxically though, Lok Sabha has an ethics committee with the members remaining in the dark about the things or acts that are clearly prescribed as unethical for them. The first ethics committee in Lok Sabha was constituted as late as on May 16, 2000 by the late GMC Balayogi of the Telugu Desam Party. Lok Sabha is yet to come out with a code-of-conduct for its members and a declaration of members’ business interests on the lines of those existing for Rajya Sabha members.
The Lok Sabha’s committee of ethics has been sitting on the matter for nearly nine years without much progress. Maybe, the members do not want to rush through the subject. The reasons could be many. According to poll rights body Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), about 40 percent of sitting MPs have criminal cases registered against them out of which 25 percent have declared serious criminal cases under charges of murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping and crimes against women. The lawmakers have been happily making laws for the citizens for years without being bound themselves under rules of personal conduct.
According to the Lok Sabha website, the ethics committee shall “(a) Examine every complaint relating to unethical conduct of a member of Lok Sabha referred to it by the Speaker and make such recommendations as it may deem fit. (b) formulate a code of conduct for members and suggest amendments or additions to the code of conduct from time to time.” After the Ethics Committee’s report is tabled in the House, it is taken up for discussion. Once approved by the House, it goes to the Rules Committee, which drafts Rules based on the recommendation. However, in the absence of a code of conduct of members, it may not be easy to fix the charges of ‘unethical conducts’ on a member and proving them despite having so-called evidence. In case of financial misconduct, the government’s investigative agencies such as CBI and ED may be better equipped to prove it as they did in the cases of several Lok Sabha members, including powerful serving and retired ministers, in the past.
On the contrary, Rajya Sabha members are clear about their code-of-conduct. The Upper House adopted a 14-point code-of-conduct for its members in 2005. It says: “…If Members find that there is a conflict between their personal interests and the public trust which they hold, they should resolve such a conflict in a manner that their private interests are subordinated to the duty of their public office …. Members should always see that their private financial interests and those of the members of their immediate family do not come in conflict with the public interest and if any such conflict ever arises, they should try to resolve such a conflict in a manner that the public interest is not jeopardised …… Members should never expect or accept any fee, remuneration or benefit for a vote given or not given by them on the floor of the House, for introducing a Bill, for moving a resolution or desisting from moving a resolution, putting a question or abstaining from asking a question or participating in the deliberations of the House or a Parliamentary Committee.”
A similar code of conduct for Lok Sabha members could have probably made them more careful about accepting money, directly or indirectly, commonly known as ‘cash-for-query’, for raising questions on behalf of outside contacts. The cash-for-query is believed to be a common practice. The roles of the Lok Sabha ethics committee in this regard as well as matters related to a member’s private financial interest in conflict with the public interest remain unclear in the absence of a code-of-conduct. The ‘cash-for-query’ scam made the media headlines in 2005, in which 11 MPs were suspended.
Lately, the Lok Sabha ethics committee came into prominence after it summoned Trinamool Congress Party’s Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra to appear before it in a cash-for-query case linking Dubai-based businessman Darshan Hiranandani. US-educated investment banker-turned-TMC MP Mahua Moitra was accused of asking questions, which were allegedly keyed in through her parliamentary account at the behest of Hiranandani, pertaining to businessman Gautam Adani and his group. The Adani group issued a statement after Supreme Court advocate Jai Anant Dehadral and BJP lawmaker Nishikant Dubey accused Moitra of receiving “bribes” from a businessman to target the group through her questions in Lok Sabha.
By nailing down Mahua Moitra on the basis of allegations made by BJP MP Nishikant Dubey, the Lok Sabha’s majority BJP led ethics committee can’t avoid the uncomfortable question on the non-existent code-of-conduct of its MPs. The final decision has to come from Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla. Citing Dehadral’s research, Dubey said that Moitra asked approximately 50 questions in Parliament, out of total 61, “which shockingly seek information, with the intent of protecting or perpetuating business interests of Shri Darshan Hiranandani and his company”. Dubey demanded an inquiry against her. A parliament member is free to raise any question in the house with regards to the government conduct and pursue the matter. Moitra’s questions targeted businessman Gautam Adani and his group, big borrowers from the government banks.
Mahua Moitra, however, remains nonchalant. She dismissed the allegations saying that the CBI is “welcome” to investigate her. “…welcome @CBIHeadquarters enquiry into my alleged money laundering right after they finish investigating Adani’s offshore money trail, over invoicing, benami accounts,” she posted on social media platform X, formerly Twitter. “Adani may use BJP agencies to browbeat competition & buy airports but just try doing it with me,” Moitra added. Moitra may not be entirely wrong. In the absence of a clear code-of-conduct for Lok Sabha MPs, the ethics committee may not be able to fully establish the complicated cash-for-query case against Moitra and suggest deterrent punishment to her, if proven. While the CBI and ED may be the appropriate agencies to investigate into the matter, Lok Sabha members must unite to formulate a code-of-conduct for members without delay and empower the ethics committee to vigorously pursue cases against unethical practices. (IPA Service)