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A wrong ruling overturned

The 1998 Supreme Court’s judgement had ruled that protection under Article 105(2) was available to those who cast their votes in parliament though they were accused of taking bribes.
Last Updated : 05 March 2024, 19:30 IST
Last Updated : 05 March 2024, 19:30 IST

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The Supreme Court has underlined the importance of probity for legislators and the limits of legislative privileges by overturning the 1998 judgement of the court in the JMM bribery case which had granted immunity from prosecution to lawmakers under Article 105 and 194 of the Constitution. A seven-judge bench has ruled that MPs and MLAs taking bribes to vote or make a speech in the House are not immune from prosecution. Five JMM MPs had allegedly accepted bribes to help the P V Narasimha Rao government survive a no-confidence motion in 1993. The Supreme Court’s judgement had ruled that protection under Article 105(2) was available to those who cast their votes in parliament though they were accused of taking bribes. The judgement has caused discomfort ever since, and the seven-judge bench has done well to overturn it. 

The court has rightly observed that corruption and bribery of members of the legislature erode the foundation of parliamentary democracy. The judgement aligns with the best legal, ethical and moral view of corruption, and should guide perceptions and action on it in future. The 1998 ruling had given lawmakers the licence to misuse parliamentary privileges and given a justification for it. It amounted to moral turpitude and to validating acts of corruption. The ruling also had a strange contradiction. According to it, a legislator was protected by immunity when he voted under the influence of a bribe he received but could be prosecuted if he voted independently of it. The judgement makes it clear that legislative privilege cannot be used as a shield, and a bribe is a bribe, taken by anybody in any circumstance for whatever purpose. 

The ruling has shed clearer light on the idea of legislative privilege. The idea has been misunderstood and misused in many ways. The court has said that it has to be linked to the collective functioning of the House and must have a functional relationship to the discharge of the legislators’ duties. It was clear about this: The privilege of an individual member only extends insofar as it aids the House to function and without which the House may not be able to carry out its functions collectively. The freedom of speech, of which the right to vote is an extension, is a privilege essential to every legislative body. But the privilege is not a mark of status and does not put a member on an unequal status. A member of a legislature engaging in bribery commits a crime. The court has rightly defined the  idea of privilege and differentiated and rescued it from acts of graft and crime, and the ruling will set a judicial precedent for the future.  

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Published 05 March 2024, 19:30 IST

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