The first fortnight of the Budget session this time had more than just a routine back and forth between the Treasury benches and the opposition. An unusually combative and unified opposition stuck to its guns demanding a discussion on the Hindenburg revelations relating to the Adani group, while the government, led by its principal firefighter Narendra Modi, refused to be drawn into a commitment to order any inquiry, either by Parliament or by the judiciary. Modi’s speech, in fact, did not mention the Adani group or the Hindenburg report at all.
Parallel to the debate in Parliament, the Supreme Court was hearing two petitions demanding an investigation into the report. The court expressed concerns about the volatility of the stock market, its impact on middle-class investments, and held that the need of the hour was to strengthen the financial regulatory systems. The Chief Justice of India was emphatic that there should be a mechanism to protect investors. The government, which had remained intransigent on the issue of an inquiry, suddenly acquiesced and agreed to constitute an expert committee.
The alacrity with which the government agreed to constitute the committee was accompanied by a caveat. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said that the government wanted to decide the scope and composition of the committee, details of which would be shared with the court in a “sealed envelope” in order not to upset the market. On February 17, however, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s suggestion. The court said, “We will appoint a committee of our own which might be altogether better as it provides a sense of confidence in the process.”
Earlier, given that the issue involves public funds, some parties, such as the Trinamool Congress, and the Left parties had suggested the need for a judicial inquiry. Congress general secretary (communications) Jairam Ramesh put out a statement that any panel other than a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) would be an “exercise in legitimisation and exoneration.”
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In Parliament, Modi launched a broadside against the Congress. According to experts familiar with the rules and procedures of Parliament, MPs may raise any issue and it is customary for the Prime Minister to reply to the debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s address.
A few BJP spokespersons were heard saying that the Prime Minister does not need to reply except during question hour. One spokesperson even said that the Prime Minister would only respond at a place and time of his choosing.
The Hindenburg report could not have come at a better time for the opposition. Its leaders met three times in the Parliament chambers of Congress president and Leader of the Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge to chalk out a strategy. Outside Parliament, the communications department of the Congress decided to ask Modi “three questions” every day on the charges of cronyism.
The opposition appeared to be in a clearly combative mood, in contrast to recent times. Every time its leaders were prevented from speaking on the subject, slogans such as “Adani ko bachana bund karo”(Stop saving Adani) rose from the opposition benches. The presiding officers of both Houses demanded “authentication” by the opposition on the charges raised against the Prime Minister. Rajya Sabha Chairman Jagdeep Dhankar, unlike his Lok Sabha counterpart Om Birla, who listened attentively to Rahul Gandhi as he spoke, was seen actively intervening in the debate, which is considered outside the pale of a chairperson’s task, and pulling up opposition MPs regularly.
Creating history of sorts, huge portions of Rahul Gandhi’s speech in the Lok Sabha and Mallikarjun Kharge’s speech in the Rajya Sabha were expunged. The Congress alleged that 18 portions of Rahul Gandhi’s speech, alluding to Modi and Adani, were deleted. Congress MP Rajani Patil was suspended for the rest of the session for videographing a part of the discussion and sharing it on social media. When the session came to a close, the opposition demand for a JPC was still nowhere in sight.
The majority of opposition MPs whom Frontline spoke to were of the view that an impartial inquiry was imperative.Congress Rajya Sabha member from Karnataka Nasir Hussain said that the topic needed to be discussed as it involved public money. As many as 18 political parties joined issue. “The opposition will have to find ways and means to get the government to conduct an inquiry. Tactics may differ at the individual level, but on this particular issue, there is clarity that the government has to respond either through a JPC or a Supreme Court-monitored committee,” said Hussain.
In the past, the opposition has come together on other issues such as Pegasus (where the government was alleged to have used a spyware developed by an Israeli surveillance firm on journalists, activists, and businesspeople). “When such issues come up,” said Hussain, “there is a sort of consensus. Parties like the Bharatiya Rashtra Samithi, the Aam Aadmi Party, and the Trinamool Congress are also part of this consensus. I do not think it will fizzle out. This will be taken to the people so that the issue reaches the masses in the form of a campaign. The Congress has already held protests at district headquarters.”
The Congress is convinced that “large-scale corruption had taken place at the highest level in the form of a quid pro quo” which necessitated a probe. But will this scandal suffer the same fate as the Rafale case, which failed to resonate politically? According to Hussain, Rafale had too many technical issues that were difficult to explain to people, but the Hindenburg findings were easier for people to relate to because it involved their savings.
The party claimed that it also plans to bring up the issue of the expunctions made in the two speeches. “It is extraordinary to disallow the Leader of the Opposition from speaking, to interrupt him constantly, and say that anything spoken against the government or a poem read out will be expunged. Who gets to decide what is in favour of the country and what is not? The Hindenburg report details the shell companies and out-of-favour contracts given. What have our audit agencies been doing? The government should initiate an investigation into the charges mentioned in the report and come clean if it has nothing to hide,” said Hussain.
In its defence, the BJP has said that the Rajasthan government, where the Congress is in power, allocated land to an Adani company in the State. But Hussain said the approval for a mega solar project was given by a Central agency and the State government had allotted land according to government rules and rates. He said his party was open to an inquiry into whether any Congress government had given out-of-turn contracts to Adani.
Sitaram Yechury, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the opposition intended to demand a high-level inquiry either by Parliament or by the judiciary. At stake here was people’s money invested through the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) and the banking system. It was misleading, he said, for the government to say that the LIC and banks were in good shape. Stock market losses impacted the people’s returns, he argued.
Given the fact nine States go to the polls this year, questions abound as to whether the Hindenburg issue can help the opposition electorally. In response, Yechury said that exposures of illegalities should not be seen as an electoral project alone. The question was of stopping corruption in high places.
Even though the uproar over the Rafale deal and the Pulwama episode (in February 2019, when a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of vehicles carrying CRPF personnel on the Jammu-Srinagar highway) had been unable to impact election outcomes, Yechury said various factors went into determining electoral outcomes.
“It is like saying as long as people elect me, I can loot the country,” he said, adding that “people give the right to political parties to govern, not to loot. If the government says everything is hunky-dory, why are they hesitant to hold an inquiry? They can be vindicated if they are right and the opposition is proven wrong. Their hesitation is an admission of guilt,” Yechury said. According to him, the game plan of the government was to evade and obfuscate.
What experts say
According to P.D.T. Achary, former Secretary General of the Lok Sabha, the Chair of a House has the powers to expunge remarks if MPs use unparliamentary, indecent or undignified words. Rule 353 of the Lok Sabha Rules clearly states that if an MP makes an allegation against a fellow MP or someone outside Parliament, he or she is required to give advance notice to the Speaker and the Minister concerned.
In this respect, successive Speakers have followed precedents. According to one precedent, a person making an allegation against a Minister on the floor of the House on the basis of a newspaper report was asked to verify that the allegation had a factual basis and take responsibility for the allegation. An MP could not merely quote a newspaper report and demand an inquiry, said Achary.
The Indian Penal Code defines defamation, but the defamation clause will not apply if an allegation is about a public servant and his public function, said Achary. The rule book of parliamentary procedures is specific that the allegation has to be of a defamatory or incriminatory character for it to be expunged. To that extent, Rahul Gandhi’s speech was not defamatory, said Achary.
According to the ruling party, Rahul Gandhi had asked if Modi and Adani had a special relationship and had said that Adani was part of a delegation accompanying the Prime Minister. “If it was said that the Prime Minister went to Australia and Adani accompanied him, it was stating a fact. It was not an allegation. And there was no need to make an inquiry into this,” said Achary.
However, the Speaker of each House has the last word and there is little scope to appeal against the rulings given. A term is considered unparliamentary if the Speaker decides so.
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According to Achary, it was strange that opposition MPs were being urged to “authenticate” what they were saying. “If a member lays a paper on the table, one has to authenticate it. On the other hand, a speech cannot be authenticated. If a member raised the Hindenburg report and asked for an inquiry, there was nothing to authenticate. The matter should end if an MP states that he or she is taking full responsibility for what is being said,” said Achary.
A second constitutional expert, requesting anonymity, said that the opposition should have fortified its position beforehand, expecting that the government would object and demand expunction. “If the government asks for proof, the opposition leaders could have stated that they had made inquiries and found that Modi had indeed gone to Australia and Adani had accompanied him. They would also need to say that they were stating it with full responsibility,” said the expert.
It would appear that the government finds itself in a corner at the moment. According to sources, the problem is that the government is neither able to defend Adani nor dump him. All eyes are now on the panel of experts that the court will set up, having rejected the government’s suggestion that it will secretly propose names for the panel.
An important consequence of the Hindenburg episode is that it gives the opposition an opportunity to unite behind a single issue. While there is broad consensus among the opposition parties on the need to counter the BJP politically, they have been unable thus far to find common cause. A few have entered into strategic alliances, a few such as the Aam Aadmi Party and the Trinamool have insisted on going it alone. If the Adani exposure can create consensus on the ground, it will be a step ahead. It suits the BJP to have a divided opposition; a unified one can be a cause for worry.
- In the Budget session, an unusually combative and unified opposition demanded a discussion on the Hindenburg revelations relating to the Adani group.
- Following the Supreme Court expressing concerns, the government agreed to constitute a committee to look into the issue but with a caveat: that the government wanted to decide the scope and composition of the committee, details of which would be shared with the court in a “sealed envelope” in order not to upset the market.
- On February 17, however, the Supreme Court rejected the government’s suggestion and said it will appoint a committee of its own.