On online betting law, lawyer Singhvi takes help from MP Singhvi

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Raising potential questions of propriety and conflict of interest, Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi has asked a question in Rajya Sabha on a subject that he has been involved in as a lawyer: government policy on betting and online gaming.

He denies any conflict but records show that on November 11, Singhvi, a senior advocate, appeared before the Karnataka High Court for a petitioner company which has challenged the Constitutional validity of the Karnataka Police (Amendment) Act 2021 that bans all online gambling and betting.

Singhvi argued that there is a distinction between a game of chance and a game of skill, and while the former can be regulated by authorities, governments have no jurisdiction on banning games of skill.

Singhvi appeared for Gameskraft Technologies Pvt Ltd in the All India Gaming Federation vs State of Karnataka case before the Karnataka High Court. Gameskraft Technologies Pvt Ltd is the parent company of  RummyCulture, an online gaming app.

Now, a month later, Singhvi, in his capacity as a member of Rajya Sabha, has asked a question – the starred question requiring an oral answer is listed against his name for December 16 in the Upper House — in which he wants the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to state: A. The details of advisory issued by the Ministry on advertisements on fantasy sports; B. The reasons for not making any differentiation between games of skills and games of chance in it; C. The policy position of the Ministry on these categories.

Experts say this raises questions of propriety.

PDT Achary, former Secretary General of Lok Sabha, said, “What Singhvi is doing may not come within the definition of ‘conflict of interests’, but it is certainly improper.”

“There are no rules relating to admission of questions or asking supplementary questions in the House on the basis of conflict of interest. Of course, it is a question of impropriety if the member has a direct and pecuniary interest in the matter relating to questions in Parliament,” he said.

The Rules of Conduct and Etiquette of the Rajya Sabha state: “Members should always see that their private financial interests and those of the members of their immediate family do not come in conflict with the public interest and if any such conflict ever arises, they should try to resolve such a conflict in a manner that the public interest is not jeopardised.”

Denying any conflict of interest, Singhvi told The Indian Express: “I have never appeared for any company dealing with fantasy sports generally except for online rummy operators. I have appeared on the legal point of games of skill versus games of chance and only for online rummy operators.”

“Secondly, the first time I appeared for the same was more than eight years ago in the Supreme Court, thereafter on different occasions in different High Courts like Andhra, Telangana, Madras and Karnataka. Thirdly, all these appearances were for one or two companies on the issue of online rummy alone. Fourthly, as a senior counsel, I am engaged by different solicitors and every time I neither deal with the client nor know about the clients. Fifthly, question (A) relates to advertisement, (B) is a completely valid question on the established law of more than 70 years first laid down by the Indian Supreme Court in Chamarbaugwala in the 1950s making a distinction between games of skill and games of chance and question C is merely consequential. Hence, there is nothing improper,” he said.

He said his question was to clarify the concept. “The question is asked only as a conceptual question about games of skill and I do not have the remotest interest in any operator. Even the slightest idea of conflict of interest never entered my mind,” he said.

The Karnataka High Court hearing on the challenge to the law effecting the ban has high stakes for the online gaming industry, fuelled by the pandemic. According to a KPMG report in June this year, the size of online casual gaming in India stood at Rs 6000 crore in FY2021.

In August, the Madras High Court struck down a similar law that banned online gaming including games of skill. States cannot legislate on a ‘game of skill’, as opposed to ‘game of chance’ as per a 1957 Supreme Court ruling. Games that rely to a greater extent on chance are categorised as gambling, which can be prohibited by law.

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