SC ends immunity for lawmakers taking bribe to vote, make speech in House

PTI | New Delhi | Updated: 04-03-2024 14:17 IST | Created: 04-03-2024 14:17 IST
SC ends immunity for lawmakers taking bribe to vote, make speech in House
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MPs and MLAs taking bribes to vote or make a speech in the House are not immune from prosecution, the Supreme Court said on Monday in a landmark, unanimous verdict that overrules its 1998 judgment protecting such lawmakers. Observing that corruption and bribery of members of the legislature erode the foundation of Indian parliamentary democracy, a seven-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud overruled the apex court's five-judge bench's 1998 verdict in the JMM bribery case -- involving five party leaders accepting bribes to vote against the no-confidence motion threatening the P V Narasimha Rao government in 1993.

''Bribery is not protected by parliamentary privileges,'' the bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna, M M Sundresh, P S Narasimha, J B Pardiwala, Sanjay Kumar and Manoj Misra, said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the verdict in a post on X. ''SWAGATAM! A great judgment by the Hon'ble Supreme Court which will ensure clean politics and deepen people's faith in the system,'' he said. Stating that ''corruption and bribery by members of the legislatures erode probity in public life'', the apex court held that a five-judge bench's interpretation in the 1998 verdict in the JMM bribery case was contrary to Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution.

Articles 105 and 194 deal with the powers and privileges of MPs and MLAs in the Parliament and the legislative assemblies.

''It (corruption and bribery) is destructive of the aspirations and deliberative ideals of the Constitution and creates a polity which deprives citizens of a responsible, responsive, and representative democracy,'' the CJI said while reading out the operative part of the verdict.

Analysing the reasoning of the majority and minority in 1998 verdict in the P V Narasimha Rao versus CBI case, the court said it has independently adjudicated on all aspects of the controversy -- essentially whether by virtue of Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution, the MP or MLA can claim immunity from prosecution on a charge of bribery in a criminal court.

The seven-judge bench was reconsidering the 1998 judgement.

''We disagree with and overrule the judgement of the majority on this aspect,'' the CJI said.

In 1998, the bench in its majority verdict granted immunity from prosecution to a member of parliament or legislature who has allegedly engaged in bribery for casting a vote or speaking in House under Articles 105(2) and 194(2).

The seven-judge bench today said the 1998 majority verdict has ''wide ramifications on public interest, probity in public life and parliamentary democracy''.

''An individual member of the legislature cannot assert a claim of privilege to seek immunity under Articles 105 and 194 from prosecution on a charge of bribery in connection with a vote or speech in the legislature,'' it said.

According to the court, Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution seek to sustain an environment in which debate and deliberation can take place within the legislature. ''This purpose is destroyed when a member is induced to vote or speak in a certain manner because of an act of bribery,'' the apex court said. ''Bribery is not rendered immune under Article 105(2) and the corresponding provision of Article 194 because a member engaging in bribery commits a crime which is not essential to the casting of the vote or the ability to decide on how the vote should be cast. The same principle applies to bribery in connection with a speech in the House or a committee,'' it said. It said Articles 105 and 194 seek to create a fearless atmosphere in which debate, deliberations, and exchange of ideas can take place within the Houses of Parliament and the state legislatures. ''Members of the legislature and persons involved in the work of the committees of the legislature must be able to exercise their free will and conscience to enrich the functionings of the House,'' it said.

''This is exactly what is taken away when a member is induced to vote in a certain way, not because of their belief or position on an issue, but because of a bribe taken by the member,'' the bench said. On September 20, 2023, the apex court had agreed to reconsider its 1998 judgement. The issue came under the apex court's lens in 2019, when a bench headed by then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi was hearing an appeal filed by Sita Soren, JMM MLA from Jama and daughter-in-law of party chief Shibu Soren. The Gogoi-led bench had referred to a five-judge bench the matter. Sita Soren was accused of taking bribes to vote for a particular candidate in the Rajya Sabha election in 2012. She contended that the constitutional provision granting lawmakers immunity from prosecution, which saw her father-in-law being let off the hook in the JMM bribery scandal, be applied to her.

She moved the apex court against the Jharkhand High Court order of February 17, 2014 refusing to quash the criminal case lodged against her.

The three-judge bench had then said it will revisit the apex court verdict in the JMM bribery case involving Shibu Soren, a former Jharkhand chief minister and ex-union minister, and four other party MPs who had accepted bribes to vote against the no-confidence motion threatening the survival of the P V Narasimha Rao government in 1993.

The Narasimha Rao government, which was in a minority, survived the no-confidence vote with their support.

The CBI registered a case against Soren and four other JMM Lok Sabha MPs but the Supreme Court quashed it citing immunity from prosecution they enjoyed under Article 105(2) of the Constitution.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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