Supreme Court to reconsider bribery immunity for lawmakers

Wednesday, the Supreme Court referred the P V Narasimha Rao case to a 7-judge Bench, citing the need to reconsider “the correctness” of a 1998 ruling by a 5-judge Constitution Bench in the P V Narasimha Rao case, in which the majority held that legislators have immunity from criminal prosecution on bribery charges for any speech or vote in Parliament.

A five-judge Constitution Bench presided over by Chief Justice of India D. Y. Chandrachud stated that the larger Bench would address the question of the correctness of the verdict regarding the interpretation of Articles 105(2) and 194(2) of the Constitution, which grant the privilege to members of Parliament and State Legislatures, respectively.

The P V Narasimha Rao case refers to the 1993 JMM bribery case, in which Shibu Soren and some of his party’s members of parliament were accused of accepting bribes to vote against the no-confidence motion against the then-P V Narasimha Rao government. Invoking immunity under Article 105(2), the Supreme Court dismissed the case against the JMM lawmakers.

Wednesday, the issue arose in another bribery case involving JMM MLA Sita Soren, who is accused of accepting a bribe to vote for an independent candidate in the 2012 Rajya Sabha elections. Later, a new election was conducted.

Sita Soren had petitioned the Jharkhand High Court (HC) to rescind the chargesheet and criminal proceedings against her, citing Article 194 (2), but the HC denied her request.

She subsequently petitioned the Supreme Court, where a two-judge bench concluded in September 2014 that since the issue was “substantial and of general public importance,” it should be heard by a larger bench of three judges. When a Bench of three judges heard the appeal on March 7, 2019, they noted that the High Court’s decision involved the Narasimha Rao verdict and should therefore be referred to a larger Bench.

Wednesday, the 5-judge Bench, which also included Justices A S Bopanna, M M Sundresh, J B Pardiwala, and Manoj Misra, stated: “We are of the opinion that the majority’s ruling in the P V Narsimha Rao case should be reconsidered by a larger Bench of seven judges.” It was described as a “important issue that affects our political system.”

“Above all, it must be noted that the purpose of Articles 105(2) and 194(2) is to ensure that members of Parliament and State Legislatures are able to carry out their duties in an atmosphere of freedom, without fear of repercussions for how they speak or exercise their right to vote on the floor of the House. The Bench stated that the purpose is not to designate apart members of the legislature as individuals who enjoy greater privileges in terms of immunity from the application of the country’s general criminal law.

Attorney General R Venkataramani, while maintaining that a reference was not required given the circumstances of the case, stated that the Narasimha Rao decision does not apply to the Sita Soren case because the immunity only applied to actions related to House business.

“The only question is whether we should wait for it to arise in the future or legislate beforehand. “Because we cannot ignore the fact that if it also promotes public morality on the part of our elected officials, we cannot postpone our decision to an undetermined date in the future,” the CJI stated.

“As a Constitution Bench, if we have a particular issue that profoundly impacts the morality of our polity, we should not pass up the chance to rectify the law. There are four eminent counsels participating in this case. What a greater chance to clarify the law,” he said.

Senior Advocate Raju Ramachandran, representing the appellant, also argued that the reference may not be necessary given the facts of the case. However, the Bench stated that it was “not inclined to accept the plea that the correctness of the decision in P V Narasimha Rao (case) is not relevant in this case.”

Senior Advocates R. S. Patwalia, who was appointed amicus curiae, and Gopal Sankaranarayan, who represented the intervenors, advocated for the appointment of a seven-judge bench.

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