Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh on Monday said that Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge is “not the accused” in the money laundering case related to the National Herald newspaper.
On August 4, Congress MP Kharge objected to being summoned by the Enforcement Directorate “in the middle of the Parliament session”. He, however, said he wants to follow the law. Kharge was questioned for more than eight hours that same day.
A day later, Rajya Sabha Chairperson M Venkaiah Naidu said that members of Parliament cannot be exempted from being arrested in criminal cases when a session of the House is underway.
Naidu also said that members of the Parliament enjoy certain privileges under Article 105 of the Constitution, but in criminal matters, they are “not on a different footing than a common citizen”.
On Monday, Ramesh issued a statement saying that the point of contention – when it comes to Kharge’s questioning – is not Parliamentary privileges.
“Here, it is to be noted that there is no dispute whatsoever on the well-established position that privileges are not available in criminal cases which were upheld by the Supreme Court in K Ananda Nambiar and R Umanath vs Chief Secretary to Government of Madras,” he said. “In the National Herald case, firstly, LoP is not the accused.”
After the Enforcement Directorate issued summons to Kharge on August 4, Ramesh said that the MP informed the agency that a Parliament session is underway and that he has prior commitments.
Kharge’s email to the Enforcement Directorate’s investigating officer stated: “As Parliament session is urgently underway... our authorised representative is in Delhi and will appear before your goodself at 10:30 am on August 4. I am happy to meet you on any day when Parliament is not in session. I assure you of my fullest cooperation in your ongoing investigation.”
This request, Ramesh said, was not accepted by the agency and Kharge was asked to be present at the newspaper’s building. A search was conducted and Kharge’s statement was recorded, Ramesh added.
According to Rule 222A of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha), when a member of Parliament is arrested on criminal charges or is detained under an executive order, the authority or the committing judge has to send an intimation to the chairperson of the House, Ramesh said.
“The legislative intent behind these provisions is that the House has a right to be informed as to why a member is not able to attend sitting of the concerned House, the reason being no obstruction is caused to a Member of Parliament in the performance of his or her Parliamentary duties unless and until there are sufficient reasons, meaning thereby their detention under a criminal case,” he added.
Ramesh said that the summons were issued “with the sole purpose of harassing LOP [Kharge] and the Congress party”.
Ramesh said that the summons issued by any law-enforcing agency when the Parliament is in session “is an outright affront to the sacred institution” of the House and the members.
“Under the circumstances, in keeping with the sanctity of Parliament and Parliamentarians and its time-honoured conventions, it is high time that the presiding officers of both Houses may deliberate and ensure that such gross affronts on the Parliament and MPs does not recur,” Ramesh’s statement said.
The National Herald was founded and edited by Jawaharlal Nehru before he became India’s first prime minister.
In April 2008, the newspaper suspended operations as it had incurred a debt of over Rs 90 crore. Bharatiya Janata Party MP Subramanian Swamy has accused Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi of setting up the Young Indian Private Limited firm to buy the debt using the funds from the Congress.
In his complaint before a trial court, Swamy accused the Gandhis and others of conspiring to cheat and misappropriate the funds. He has alleged that the Young Indian firm paid only Rs 50 lakh to obtain the right to recover Rs 90.25 crore that the Associated Journals Limited owed to the Congress.
The party had loaned the amount to Associated Journals Limited on an interest-free basis, according to court records. The Congress has claimed that there was no money exchange and only conversion of debt into equity took place to pay off dues like salaries.