Deciphering privilege motion

Team ZRG

The BJP has hinted at moving a privilege motion against Joint Parliamentary Committee chairman PC Chacko citing leaked reports of the 2G spectrum allocation scam case to the media before they reached members of the panel. In pursuit of the above, senior party leaders Yashwant Sinha (Lok Sabha) and Ravi Shankar Prasad (Rajya Sabha) have given notices for calling attention and are demanding a debate on how the report got leaked. Prasad’s notice was given along with DMK’s Tiruchi Shiva.

While it is still a matter of conjecture whether the presiding officers of the two Houses will allow the motion, the overarching trend vis-a-vis privilege motion is rejection with only a few recommended with penal action by the House.

For the uninitiated, a privilege motion is a notice by any member of either House against those being accused of breach of privilege. Parliamentary privileges are certain rights and immunities enjoyed by Members of Parliament, individually and collectively, so that they can effectively discharge their functions. When any of these rights and immunities is disregarded, the offence is called a breach of privilege and is punishable under law of Parliament. Each House also claims the right to punish as contempt actions which, while not breach of any specific privilege, are offences against its authority and dignity.

Rule No 222 in Chapter 20 of the Lok Sabha Rule Book and correspondingly Rule 187 in Chapter 16 of the Rajya Sabha Rule Book deal with privilege and its procedure. Like most Parliamentary procedures, the presiding officers of the respective House in which a privilege notice has been brought act as the first level of scrutiny. They can either take a call themselves or refer it to the Privileges Committee of Parliament. In the first instance, the Rule 222 allows the member concerned to make a short statement.

As for the second, the Speaker nominates a committee of privileges consisting of 15 members as per respective party strengths in the Lok Sabha. A report is then presented to the House for its consideration. The Speaker may permit a half-hour debate while considering the report. The Speaker may then pass final orders or direct that the report be tabled before the House. A resolution may then be moved relating to the breach of privilege that has to be unanimously passed. In the Rajya Sabha, the deputy chairperson heads the committee of privileges, that consists of 10 members.

While a large number of privilege motions are prone to being rejected, the very few which were accepted remain etched in the history of Indian Parliament as significant decisions. Take for instance Indira Gandhi’s expulsion from the House in 1978 after winning the Lok Sabha seat from Chikmaglur. The then home minister Charan Singh moved a resolution of breach of privilege against her following observations made by the Justice Shah Commission which probed excesses during the Emergency.

In 1976, Subramaniam Swamy was expelled from the Rajya Sabha. He was charged with bringing disrepute to Parliament by his activities through interviews in foreign publications that were construed as anti-India propaganda.

In another instance, Blitz editor RK Karanjia was held guilty of gross breach of privilege of the House in 1961. Blitz had published an article that lampooned veteran leader JB Kripalani. He was summoned to the bar of the Lok Sabha and reprimanded, while the Lok Sabha gallery pass of his correspondent, RK Raghavan, was cancelled.

On December 23, 2005, 11 “tainted” MPs, who were caught in a sting over the cash for query scandal, were expelled from the House.

More recently, in an episode relating to the WikiLeaks revelations, Sushma Swaraj, the Leader of Opposition, moved a privilege motion against the Prime Minister charging that he misled the House when he said that a parliamentary panel that looked into the charges of cash for votes during the 2008 vote of confidence “found insufficient evidence to reach any conclusion”.

To counter the BJP then, Congress members Manish Tiwari, Jagdambika Pal and Sandeep Dikshit too gave notices to the Speaker charging the Leader of Opposition with breach of privilege. They alleged that Swaraj questioned the authority of the Speaker and subverted rules of Parliament when the Prime Minister made a statement on the WikiLeaks episode. In addition, CPI’s Gurudas Dasgupta had given a privilege notice against a national publication for publishing the cash-for-votes story.

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