The era of Privilege Motions

By Derek O’Brien

Privilege motions have been in the news recently. The Union Minister of Communications, Railways, and Electronics and Information Technology, opened himself to a breach of privilege motion when he divulged the details of what transpired in the Parliamentary Standing Committee meeting on the Personal Data Protection Bill. Then there was the case where the Congress MP from Wayanad had a privilege motion moved against him by BJP’s chief heckler in Lok Sabha, an MP from Jharkhand.

A Privilege motion was also sought against 12 MPs for supposedly disorderly conduct in the first leg of the Budget Session. A Rajya Sabha MP was suspended and a privilege motion was moved against her because she allegedly recorded proceedings on her smartphone inside the House. As per the Rajya Sabha bulletin published in the public domain, the Rajya Sabha Chairman has also sought a privilege motion against an MP from Aam Aadmi Party for a bizarre reason- repeatedly submitting identical notices!

What is a privilege motion? The Constitution guarantees for certain privileges (rights/immunities) to both Houses of Parliament and their members, to allow them to discharge their functions efficiently. When any of these rights/immunities are violated, it amounts to what is known as ‘a breach of privilege’. The Parliament has the right to punish any such breaches by moving a privilege motion.

How is a question of breach of privilege raised? In the Rajya Sabha, a question of breach of privilege can either be raised by an MP or in the rarest of cases, by the presiding officer himself. The question can either be considered by the House or can be referred to the Committee on Privileges for examination.

It is interesting to flag that out of the 70 reports of the Committee of Privileges available on the Rajya Sabha website, the question of privilege in 66 cases were raised by MPs. In only four cases did the Chairperson refer the matter of his own accord. Contrast this with what has happened in the last one month- the Chairperson has referred three questions of privilege to the Committee of his own accord.

The bigger question here is, what should Opposition MPs do when their voices are stifled in Parliament? When microphones are muted, when Sansad TV is censored, when sentences and even full paragraphs from speeches are expunged?  When representatives of the people are not allowed to raise people’s issues in Parliament, should they act like lambs to the slaughter? Or should they find innovative ways to register their protest?

Here is what two BJP stalwarts and legendary Parliamentarians had to say on the subject. Sushma Swaraj: “Not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy, like any other form.” Arun Jaitley: “There are occasions when obstruction in Parliament brings greater benefits to the country. Our strategy does not permit us to allow the government to use Parliament without being held accountable.”

In the first leg of the Budget session in February, the entire Opposition were raising a demand to order an inquiry (some preferred a Joint Parliamentary Committee, a few others a Supreme Court monitored probe) into LIC-SBI funds being at risk because of their exposure to Adani companies. Perfectly legitimate Parliamentary tactic. How justified is it to now seek a privilege motion against the protesting MPs?

As per earlier reports (2009 and 2014) of the Committee on Privileges, such ‘disruptions’ do not fall under the purview of Parliamentary privileges. The Committee found that the intention of the members disrupting was not to prevent any other member from speaking or to question the authority of the Chair. It was, in fact, to express their discontent over a particular issue in which their opinion was not being taken note of by the Union Government.

Now let me address the issue of an MP (Opposition or Treasury benches) resubmitting identical Notices on consecutive days. Goodness me. Re-submission of identical notices has been a common practice, a precedent, for decades in both Houses. This is done by a member for multiple reasons. Most notices lapse after a specific period of time and it is the right of a member to resubmit her/his notice. Or, an MP may choose to repeatedly emphasise on a certain issue over a sustained period of time. Totally legit.

Members from the Opposition across the country are brazenly targeted every day by the Modi-Shah government through their agencies like CBI and ED. No one from the BJP ever is. In the same manner, members of the BJP are never subjected to inquiries by the Committee of Privileges. Ministers in the Modi government are Teflon coated. If they weren’t, why wasn’t the Union IT Minister served a privilege notice for shooting his mouth off when he was addressing a forum and disclosing classified information. The Minister claimed that Parliament’s Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology had examined the Bill and given it a ‘big thumbs up’. Every Constitutional authority remained mum.

Even kindergarten Parliament knows that the Proceedings of a Committee shall be treated as confidential. Anyone who has access to its proceedings should not disclose any information regarding its report or any conclusions arrived at, before the report has been presented to the House.

For Parliamentary privileges and all else in Indian politics, there are two sets of rules. One set of rules for members of TMC, INC, SP, DMK, AAP, BRS, SS, RJD, JD(U), NCP, CPI(M). And a different set of rules for the party run by the two most famous members of the Gujarat Gymkhana.

(The writer is Member of Parliament and Leader, All India Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party (Rajya Sabha). Additional research by Ankita Dinkar).

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