MLA Bribery Seven-Judge Constitution Bench | Day 2: Bench Reserves JudgementMLA Bribery
Today, a seven-judge bench led by CJI D.Y. Chandrachud reserved judgement on the correctness of the Supreme Court’s decision in Narasimha Rao v State (1998). The bench’s decision will determine the scope of a legislator’s immunity in cases of bribery for a speech or a vote in Parliament or a legislative assembly. In Narasimha Rao, a five-judge bench in a 3:2 majority—held that legislators are immune to criminal prosecution for any speech or vote.
Senior Advocates Gopal Sankaranarayanan and Vijay Hansaria, along with four other lawyers argued against the correctness of the majority opinion in Narasimha. Attorney General R. Venkataramani and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued against the majority opinion in succession.
Senior Advocate Raju Ramachandran, representing Sita Soren, the applicant in the present case, was the sole lawyer arguing in favour of Narasimha Rao, and concluded his rejoinder arguments.
Article 194(2) states that ‘No member of the Legislature of a State shall be liable to any proceedings in any court in respect of anything said or any vote given by him in the Legislature or any committee thereof, and no person shall be so liable in respect of the publication by or under the authority of a House of such a Legislature of any report, paper, votes or proceedings.’
Sita Soren, a member of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), was accused of accepting a bribe to vote for a particular candidate in the Rajya Sabha Elections of 2012. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) subsequently filed an official chargesheet against Sita Soren for allegedly accepting a bribe for a vote and a case was filed in the High Court of Jharkhand. In 2014, The Jharkhand High Court dismissed the plea filed by Sita Soren seeking to quash the criminal proceedings that had been initiated against her, claiming that she enjoyed immunity under Article 194(2) of the Constitution. The case has subsequently been appealed before the Supreme Court.
A 3 judge Bench of the Supreme Court heard the case on March 7th 2019 and took note of the decision of the Constitution Bench in P V Narsimha Rao v State(1998), where the Court (in a 3:2 majority) had held that parliamentarians enjoy immunity under the Constitution against criminal prosecution with regards to their speech and votes in the House. The Bench comprising CJI Ranjan Gogoi, S Abdul Nazeer, and Sanjiv Khanna J accordingly referred the matter to a larger Bench.
On 20 September 2023, a five-judge Constitution Bench referred the Supreme Court’s judgement in P.V. Narasimha Rao v State (1998) to a seven-judge bench. The seven-judge bench will decide the extent of immunity for lawmakers under Articles 105(2) and 194(2) of the Constitution in cases of bribery.
Sankaranarayanan: “Cloak of immunity” not for those who interfere with the legislative process
Sankaranaaryanan argued that the minority opinion in Narasimha Rao, written by Justice S.C. Agarwal, was the correct view when considering the criminality of legislators who accept a bribe. It was consistent with landmark cases in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and South Africa.
He argued that as per State of Kerala v Ajith K (2021) the “cloak of immunity” under Articles 105 and 194 can only be extended after differentiating legislative, non-legislative, and legitimate and illegitimate activities in the legislature.
The majority opinion in Narasimha Rao, he argued, extended this“cloak of immunity” to illegitimate functions which interfere with the flow of parliamentary processes. He contended that the “consequence of crime” which directly affects a legislative process should not be protected with immunity.
Hansaria: Immunity “begins and terminates inside the House”
Honing in on the view that the judgement in Narasimha Rao was incorrect, Hansaria argued the majority opinion “nexus test” which grants immunity to all sorts of crimes. According to Hansaria, the majority held that the crime and conduct in the parliament must have a “nexus” for the purpose of immunity. If this view was accepted, he contended that crimes under a wide variety of laws including the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act would be protected if there was a “nexus”. Therefore, he went on to dismiss the nexus theory.
Instead, he favoured the “integral part test” laid down by the minority opinion. According to this theory, he submitted that the words “in respect of” in Articles 105 and 194 should only extend to instances essential to the legislature. Otherwise, he warned that the wide interpretation of the nexus theory propounded by the majority would boost the “criminalisation of politics,”
Lastly, Hansaria argued that the privilege enjoyed by the legislators should “begin and terminate inside the house of the parliament”, which means that any criminal act outside the house would invite criminal prosecution even if there was a “nexus” between the crime and the conduct in the legislature.
Interveners argue against immunity from crimes
Four lawyers appearing for different interveners in the case then argued against the Narasimha Rao judgement. First, they contended that the immunity has taken the “colour of criminalisation” because the broad interpretation given by the majority opinion in Narasimha Rao is prone to misuse. The privileges under Articles 105 and 194, they said, never intended to place parliamentarians on a “higher pedestal”.
Second, they reiterated that the minority opinion in Narasimha Rao is correct and that there is “no place of immunity for bribes” in a healthy democracy where voters entrust faith in their representatives.
Further, they urged that the phrase “in respect of” used in the Articles should be narrowly interpreted as “something that is directly associated with or banded together or closely linked with the subject and not a remote nexus.”
Venktaramani: Minority view in Narasimha Rao should be moderated
Venkataramani pointed out that legislators were bestowed with immunities and privileges to speak freely without any external coercion. However, these privileges, he said could not be misused to “dilute the trust” afforded to them.
He urged that the Court needed to find the balance between these two aspects. He cautioned that the bench must take into consideration, political activities, and the purpose of the legislators engaging in criminal acts before proposing an “inflexible norm” under Articles 105 and 194.
Further, he drew the Court’s attention to the nature of votes in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha (and legislative assemblies). Articles 105 and 194, he said, offered protection to only votes and speeches in furtherance of matters pertaining to the legislative agenda. Elections in a Rajya Sabha, he asserted is an “independent process” and is not a part of the legislative process of the House. Therefore, in the present case (Sita Soren), the question of immunity does not arise as the bribe was taken in furtherance of a vote in the Rajya Sabha.
Echoing Hansaria’s view, Venkataramani also disagreed with the “nexus test” laid down by the majority in Narasimha Rao. This test, he argued, disregards any antecedent criminal conduct which occurred prior to the speech or the vote., argued Venkataramani.
While disagreeing with the majority view in Narasimha Rao, Venkataramani also cautioned the bench against relying fully on the minority view in the case. The minority view, he pointed out, attached special importance to the antecedent conduct. Therefore, he urged that this view be “moderated.”
Mehta: “Performance of a promise” after accepting a bribe is not an essential ingredient
After lunch, Mehta commenced his arguments against the judgement in Narasimha Rao. He claimed that legislators are not immune to prosecution, if the offence of bribery is committed outside the legislative house. CJI Chandrachud pointed out that the place of offence would not matter as an offer and acceptance of a bribe can also take place inside Parliament. Mehta responded that such instances were unlikely.
Mehta then stated that it is not necessary to establish that the accused upheld his/her bargain of the bribe for it to be considered an offence. The offence is complete once the receiver accepts an offer. Therefore, he contended that the majority opinion in Narasimha Rao was flawed as it made the “performance of a promise” the guiding principle to extend immunity. According to Mehta, the performance is not an essential ingredient at all.
He relied on Section 7 of the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) which has “specifically excluded” performance. Mehta concluded his arguments by stating that in Narasimha Rao, the Court did not take into account the statutory scheme of the PCA.
Ramachandran: Offence committed prior to speech or vote is protected by immunity
Ramachandran argued that an offence committed at an anterior point of time would be “within the umbrella of immunity” if it is in “contemplation of a vote”. To illustrate, Ramachandran presented an example of hate speech. He argued that hate speech within the parliament is protected, but what if there was a conspiracy to engage in hate speech days before it was actually delivered? He posited that the prior offence of conspiracy should also be shielded by immunity.
Ramachandran then contended that bribery cannot be bifurcated as a separate offence because Articles 105 and 194 grant immunity for all criminal offences.
Finally, responding to Venkataramani’s argument that a vote in the Rajya Sabha is distinct and is not protected under Articles 105 and 194, Ramachandran contended that a vote in a Rajya Sabha election is mandated by the Constitution and enjoys the same privilege.