The BJP has asked Speaker Om Birla to set up a special committee of Lok Sabha to explore whether Congress leader Rahul Gandhi should be suspended for allegedly insulting the country, its democracy, and Parliament during his recent visit to the United Kingdom. Rahul has rejected the allegations and refused to apologise for his statements.
What did Rahul say, and why is the BJP angry?
On February 28, Rahul said at Cambridge University that “everybody knows…that Indian democracy is under…attack”, and “the institutional framework which is required for a democracy — Parliament, a free press, the judiciary, just the idea of mobilisation…, these are all getting constrained…”.
On March 6, during a discussion in Chatham House, he said: “It is an Indian problem and the solution is going to come from inside… However, the scale of Indian democracy means that [it] is a global public good… If Indian democracy collapses…democracy on the planet suffers a very serious, possibly fatal blow. So it is important for you too.”
According to the BJP, Rahul made “denigrating, unwarranted comments” and spread an “untenable narrative” about Indian institutions on foreign soil as part of a “calculated attempt” to bring them into disrepute.
Does what Rahul said amount to a breach of Parliament’s privilege?
That is for the House to decide, said constitutional expert Subhash C Kashyap, who was Secretary General of the seventh, eighth, and ninth Lok Sabhas.
“It can decide whether the member has breached the privilege or a contempt of the House has taken place. The House has full authority,” Kashyap said.
In general, Rahul’s allegation that mics of Opposition MPs are switched off when they speak could be a matter for the Privileges Committee as it could be seen as an insult to the Chair; however, his statement that democracy is under attack in India would probably not amount to breach of Parliament’s privilege.
But again, it is the House that decides on what it deems as contempt, said PDT Achary, another former Secretary General of Lok Sabha.
What is the legal basis for setting up the special committee?
Here too, the House is supreme, Kashyap said. “The House can set up a committee and decide its terms of reference. It is entirely within its power,” he said.
Achary said a special committee could be formed by moving a motion for the establishment of such a committee and its terms of reference. “The offence will have to be defined before anyone can be punished for it,” Achary said.
A committee similar to the one that was set up to investigate the cash-for-votes scandal in 2008 could be formed to investigate and punish an MP, he said.
A mechanism to look into the “moral and ethical conduct of the members” already exists in the Ethics Committee of Lok Sabha. However, the BJP does not want Rahul’s case to be “one of the many issues before the committee”. Instead, it wants a special committee on the lines of the one constituted to look into the cash-for-query scandal in 2005.
Under what circumstances was the 2005 committee formed?
On December 12, 2005, a private TV channel aired a sting operation carried out by the online portal Cobrapost that purported to show 10 Lok Sabha and one Rajya Sabha MP accepting cash in return for asking questions in Parliament. Six of the 11 accused MPs were from the BJP, three were from the BSP, and one each from the RJD and Congress.
The MPs’ purported action was seen as unethical and corrupt. The Lok Sabha constituted a five-member committee with Congress MP Pawan Kumar Bansal at its head, and V K Malhotra (BJP), Ram Gopal Yadav (Samajwadi Party), Mohammad Salim (CPI-M) and C Kuppusami (DMK) as members.
The probe in Rajya Sabha was carried out by the Ethics Committee of the House.
What happened in the special committee?
In its 38-page report tabled in Lok Sabha, the committee said the allegation against the 10 MPs had been established. It noted that a resolution moved by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Provisional Parliament of 1951 had expressed outright abhorrence of any member accepting money in return for advocating a cause in Parliament. On December 24, 2005, Parliament voted to expel the 11 MPs.
With six of its MPs facing the axe, the BJP protested vigorously. In a dissent note, V K Malhotra said: “I would not like to become a party to the setting of a precedent by which a member can be expelled from the House without the proper procedure being adopted.” Malhotra argued that “only a court can decide the legal position of the action recommended”.
BJP members walked out before the vote at the end of the five-hour debate on the panel’s report. Then Leader of Opposition L K Advani likened the expulsion to “capital punishment”, which was not “commensurate with the act, definitely of corruption, but more of stupidity”.
During the debate, some members expressed apprehension that expulsion could set a dangerous precedent, and parties might look to remove political rivals from legislative bodies for small indiscretions.
But the ruling Congress argued that the will of the House must prevail.
What happens in the Rahul case now?
If a committee is indeed set up, the BJP, given its strength in Lok Sabha, will have a majority in it. The committee usually submits its report in a month; it can sit daily, and it can call Rahul for an explanation.
What is less certain is whether the BJP actually wants to have the Wayanad MP suspended. Some observers believe the party only wants to keep the heat on him; indeed, some ruling party MPs fear that a suspension could win Rahul public sympathy and political traction.
Suspension for a period will mean Wayanad will not have a representative in the House for that period. It will not see a by-election, which can be triggered only by the MP’s expulsion.
(With Damini Nath)