Shikha Mukerjee | Ethics, politics and the art of lobbying, wooing voters

The tale is not the alleged cash that Mahua Moitra received; the tale is of two legislators

In democracies with elected legislatures, the interaction between the representatives of the people and the people is not confined to the curated visit to a mud hut to eat an equally curated meal with the host, typically selected as a representative of the backward class or caste. There are interactions between legislators and sections of the public, some powerful, some wealthy, some influential and some critical. That is part of how representatives hear what the public has to say.

The art of lobbying or even the craft of it requires a degree of handling with care. While the Ethics Committee of Parliament will deliberate and proceed in the complaint against Mahua Moitra for her admitted misconduct, in her words, limited to allowing a staffer of a corporate body, the Hiranandani Group, to access her email address, she has vehemently denied that there was any quid pro quo or “where is the cash?”

Between the lobs hurled at Mahua Moitra by the indignantly righteous Nishikant Dubey of the BJP, her alleged lobbying on behalf of the Hiranandani Group and the entirely democratic practice of lobbying, there hangs a tale. The tale is not the alleged cash that Mahua Moitra received; the tale is of two legislators, who according to Ms Moitra asked her to settle with the target of her pointed attacks, namely the now famous Adani Group.

The issue is simple; is Ms Moitra’s sharing of her email address a crime tantamount to harm to the national interest? That is a matter of opinion. The Ethics Committee and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla will arrive at an opinion on the matter. On the second issue, who lobbied whom and on behalf of whom, Ms Moitra has to decide what course of action she will adopt. Equally, in the interests of full disclosure and ethical conduct, it would be entirely proper for Mr Dubey to declare that he represents a constituency, Godda in Jharkhand, that is home to the “Adani Power Jharkhand Ltd (APJL), a wholly owned subsidiary of Adani Power Ltd”.

Disclosures are essential in elected democracies. Voters must be kept informed on who does what and why in order to make up their minds on who they will choose to represent them, because the responsibility and the power increases at every level of the elected representation structure.

It is precisely this direct link between what legislators do and the wooing of voters in election season that makes the Mahua Moitra issue so critical to the democratic process. Ms Moitra cannot be held to one standard of conduct if others are not held to the same standard of conduct.

The conduct of elected representatives once they get into the legislatures is vital to the idea of democracy. Should Members of Parliament ask pointed questions about lobbying? Should they suspect vested interests at work? Or should do they confine their enquires into matters that are less fraught with suspicion?

As of now, it seems Ms Moitra is battling it out alone. The Trinamul Congress has chosen not to embroil itself in the controversy. The TMC will, however, have to decide soon on how it deals with the outcome of the Ethics Committee hearing. The party cannot remain in denial mode. The Moitra affair will figure in the annals of India’s parliamentary history.

While one section of the public is riveted by the Mahua Moitra affair, in five states -- Congress-ruled Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, Bharat Rashtra Samithi-ruled Telangana, Mizo National Front-ruled Mizoram and BJP- ruled Madhya Pradesh -- voters are expected to be riveted by the pitches of competing political parties. The Moitra affair is therefore central to the ongoing battle to persuade voters.

In theory, the BJP is the challenger in the Congress-ruled states and would like to believe itself as the challenger in Telangana. If the Dubey disclosure had been timed differently, the focus of attention would have shifted to the Congress and the failed seat-sharing within the INDIA alliance in Madhya Pradesh. Attention would have been firmly focused on the Mandal (caste census demand) versus “Kamandal” (dividing the nation on the basis of caste and religion) war.

The Congress has made both the caste census and the idea of people power the central plank of its campaign. “Sawal ey baat ke hai ki pradesh hamar hare ki Adani ke hare” (the question is: is the state ours or Adani’s), challenging Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s propriety on the one hand and his socio-economic priorities on the other. In contrast, as the superstar campaigner for the BJP who has in the past several elections, including Karnataka, Mr Modi has talked up a storm on the imperative to establish “double-engine sarkars” in every state and predicted his continuity as the Prime Minister after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

To return to power in 2024, the BJP has to win big in the elections in the five states. In reality, the BJP is being challenged in all five states, which is an entirely new state of affairs. This is an unprecedented situation for the BJP and its leader. The BJP needs to unseat the Ashok Gehlot government in Rajasthan, fight its own anti-incumbency in after being almost 20 years in power and find a leader, other than Mr Modi, in Chhattisgarh to dislodge the firmly ensconced Bhupesh Baghel government.

The blatant inducement in Telangana to the “backward classes” of a chief minister’s chair if the BJP wins, by indefatigable mastermind and dogged campaigner Amit Shah, is a giveaway that the party is flailing around in search of an appeal that will work with voters. It cancels the narrative that Prime Minister Modi has constructed that the Opposition is engaging in the politics of division by focusing on caste-identity issues and regional differences as a way fomenting disunity and dismantling the idea of the majority central to the BJP’s Hindutva ideology.

Never before has the star power of Mr Modi been spurned as it was by Mizoram chief minister and MNF boss Zoramthangma. His message was clear and it was addressed to Mr Modi: “stay away”. This rejection compelled Mr Modi to cancel his campaign tour to Mamit. Mr Modi’s masterly inaction on Manipur has made him vulnerable, as never before.

This round of election is as much a test for Narendra Modi as it is for the Congress and the INDIA alliance. As much as the Congress needs a breakthrough, so does Mr Modi and the BJP, because the political equilibrium that keeps one side in power and the other side out of power needs a change.

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