In a crucial legal development, a constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India began reevaluating the question of whether legislators should be granted immunity from prosecution in corruption cases related to their parliamentary activities. The bench, consisting of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, and Justices AS Bopanna, MM Sundresh, PS Narasimha, JB Pardiwala, Sanjay Kumar, and Manoj Misra, is revisiting the 1998 PV Narasimha Rao judgment that conferred this immunity.
The PV Narasimha Rao verdict, delivered by a five-judge bench, established that parliamentarians and state legislators were immune from prosecution in bribery cases involving their parliamentary functions, as protected by Articles 105(2) and 194(2) of the Indian Constitution. However, this immunity was conditional upon the legislator upholding their part of any alleged bargain for which they received a bribe.
The current examination of this judgment emerged from an appeal by Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leader Sita Soren, who faced accusations of accepting a bribe in a 2012 Rajya Sabha vote. Soren sought immunity under Article 194(2), but her plea was rejected by the Jharkhand High Court, leading to her appeal in the Supreme Court.
The constitution bench’s proceedings prompted a substantial debate over the interpretation and relevance of these constitutional provisions in today’s political landscape. Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta argued that the focus should be on analyzing the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, without revisiting Article 105. However, Chief Justice Chandrachudstressed the need to discuss immunity since the majority in the PV Narasimha Rao case had held that immunity could be claimed regardless of criminality, with the exception of a legislator who accepts a bribe but doesn’t fulfill their end of the bargain.
Senior Advocate Raju Ramachandran urged caution in overturning PV Narasimha Rao, emphasizing that the judgment had stood unchallenged for over 25 years and warning against overhauling the interpretation of Articles 105(2) and 194(2). He argued that constitutional privileges and immunities were integral components of the constitutional framework and should not be dismissed in the name of logic or fairness.
Ramachandran further highlighted the historical context of these immunities, emphasizing their role in safeguarding legislators from executive interference in their duties. He contended that today’s political landscape featured a powerful executive, making these immunities more crucial than ever to ensure legislators could perform their duties without fear of prosecution.
Responding to concerns about potential misuse, Chief Justice Chandrachud questioned whether immunity should be granted solely on the apprehension of executive misuse. Ramachandran argued that this apprehension of misuse had underpinned these immunities, and the court should respect what had endured over time.
Ramachandran also addressed the Central Bureau of Investigation’s argument that voting in Rajya Sabha elections should not fall under Article 194(2) since it wasn’t a ‘legislative vote.’ He contested this interpretation, asserting that a member’s constitutional duty to vote warranted protection under Articles 105(2) and 194(2).
Senior Advocates PS Patwalia and Gopal Sankaranarayanan, opposing Ramachandran’s arguments, contended that these constitutional provisions aimed to preserve the legislative process’s integrity and the independence of legislators, not shield individuals from criminal proceedings due to betrayal of public trust.
Sankaranarayanan advocated a narrow interpretation of the words ‘in respect of’ in Articles 105(2) and 194(2), emphasizing that broad interpretations could allow immunity for acts remotely connected to parliamentary duties. He argued that criminal proceedings arising from illegal acts should not be left to parliamentary discipline’s vagaries but should follow normal criminal law procedures.
Patwalia supported the minority view in PV Narasimha Rao, asserting that accepting a bribe constituted an offense even without fulfilling the bargain, as per criminal law. He argued that performance had no bearing on the constitutional provisions, and legislators could not claim immunity.
The interpretation of ‘participation’ in parliamentary proceedings also sparked a discussion. Chief Justice Chandrachud questioned whether silent participation without voting or speaking should be covered, to which both Ramachandran and Patwalia agreed. They contended that immunity attached to all parliamentary proceedings, ensuring legislators could perform their duties without fear of prosecution.
The constitution bench will continue deliberating this important issue, weighing the historic significance of these immunities against the apprehension of misuse and the need to uphold the democratic process. The outcome will have significant implications for legislators’ accountability and the fight against corruption in India.