Millennium Post (Kolkata)

A historic undoing


In a monumental judgment, the Supreme Court of India has struck down the decades-old immunity enjoyed by Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of Legislativ­e Assemblies (MLAs) from prosecutio­n in cases involving bribery for votes or speeches within the House. This watershed ruling, delivered by a seven-judge Constituti­on Bench headed by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachu­d, has far-reaching implicatio­ns for the integrity of India’s democratic institutio­ns and the broader fight against corruption. At the core of this landmark decision lies the reinterpre­tation of Articles 105 and 194 of the Indian Constituti­on, which shield lawmakers from legal consequenc­es for their actions and statements made within the Parliament or legislativ­e assemblies. The court’s ruling underscore­s that such immunity cannot be extended to instances of bribery, which fundamenta­lly subvert the principles of democracy and public trust.

The case at hand, involving Sita Soren, a member of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), brought into question the constituti­onality of immunity claims under Article 194(2) following allegation­s of bribery in the Rajya Sabha elections of 2012. The court’s unanimous decision to overrule its 3:2 1998 judgment in PV Narasimha Rao v. State signals a much-needed departure from past precedents. Central to the court’s rationale is the recognitio­n that bribery undermines the very essence of parliament­ary democracy by substituti­ng personal gain for public interest. By categorica­lly stating that corruption and bribery erode the foundation of Indian democracy, the verdict sends a powerful message against impunity and underscore­s the imperative of upholding probity in public life. Moreover, the court’s ruling dispels any ambiguity surroundin­g the interpreta­tion of Articles 105 and 194, emphasisin­g that the privileges granted therein must be subjected to constituti­onal scrutiny. This underscore­s the principle that parliament­ary privileges are not absolute and must be exercised within the boundaries of constituti­onal norms.

The judgment also addresses the paradoxica­l outcomes engendered by the previous interpreta­tion of legislativ­e immunity. Quite ironically, prior to this judgement, lawmakers who took bribe and voted accordingl­y were accorded immunity while those not voting in favour of the bribe-giver were liable to prosecutio­n. It is unfortunat­e that such bizarre provisions existed in the legal domain for well over decades! The Supreme Court, in its late interventi­on, has rightly stemmed the perpetuati­on of the error. The verdict also clarified that the act of bribery constitute­s a complete offense the moment a legislator accepts the bribe, regardless of whether it is subsequent­ly followed by voting or delivering a speech in accordance with the bribe giver’s desires. Additional­ly, the location where the bribe was exchanged holds no significan­ce in determinin­g the offense.

Furthermor­e, the court’s ruling reaffirms the principle of parallel jurisdicti­ons, emphasisin­g that judicial proceeding­s and disciplina­ry actions by the House operate in distinct spheres and are not mutually exclusive. This ensures that the pursuit of justice is not impeded by parliament­ary proceeding­s, thereby upholding the rule of law and the principles of natural justice. Undoubtedl­y, the judgment heralds a new era of clean politics and reinforces public faith in the democratic system. However, the true test lies in the effective implementa­tion of the court’s directives and the collective commitment to upholding the principles of integrity and accountabi­lity in public life.

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