Vote-for-bribe: SC says no immunity from prosecution to MPs, MLAs

The Asian Age.  | Rakesh K. Singh

India, All India

The apex court overruled a five-judge bench’s 1998 verdict in the JMM bribery case

Supreme Court (PTI)

New Delhi: In a landmark unanimous ruling, a seven-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud on Monday ruled that MPs and MLAs taking bribes to vote or make a speech in the House are not immune from prosecution.

The apex court overruled a five-judge bench’s 1998 verdict in the JMM bribery case which had ruled that parliamentarians and state legislators are immune from prosecution for taking bribes for voting or making a speech in the House.

The CJI-led bench observed that corruption and bribery of members of the legislature erode the foundation of Indian parliamentary democracy and bribery by members is not protected by parliamentary privilege.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi lauded the verdict as a “great judgment”, saying it will ensure clean politics and deepen people’s faith in the system.

Prime Minister Modi said 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.”

The JMM bribery case refers to five party leaders, including Shibu Soren, a former Jharkhand chief minister and a former Union minister, accepting bribes to vote against the no-confidence motion against the minority government of P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1993. With the support of these five JMM leaders, the Rao government sailed through the no-confidence motion.

Citing immunity from prosecution under Article 105(2) of the Constitution to the five JMM parliamentarians, the apex court through the 1998 verdict quashed a CBI FIR against them for bribery.

“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 on Monday.

Underlining that "corruption and bribery by members of the legislatures erode probity in public life", the Constitution Bench held that the 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 constitutional provisions related to the powers and privileges of MPs and MLAs in Parliament and the state 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 135-page verdict.

Recalling the reasoning of the majority and minority in 1998 verdict in the P.V. Narasimha Rao versus CBI case, the top 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 revisiting the 1998 verdict.

“We disagree with and overrule the judgment of the majority on this aspect,” the CJI said.

In its majority verdict, the five-judge bench in 1998 granted immunity from prosecution to members of Parliament or state legislatures accused of bribery for casting a vote or speaking in the House under Articles 105(2) and 194(2).

The seven-judge bench 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.

Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution seek to sustain an environment in which debate and deliberation can take place within the legislature, the top court held.

“This purpose is destroyed when a member is induced to vote or speak in a certain manner because of an act of bribery,” it 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 functioning of the House,” the bench 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 top court said.

On September 20, 2023, the apex court had agreed to reconsider its 1998 verdict.