A seven-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court unanimously held that members of the legislature (MPs/MLAs) 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.

The Court overruled its five-Judges Bench judgment in PV Narasimha Rao v. State (CBI/SPE) (1998) 4 SCC 626 and observed that bribery is not protected by a parliamentary privilege.

The court observed that “Privileges are not an end in themselves in a Parliamentary form of government as the majority has understood them to be”. The Court also concluded that “Corruption and bribery by members of the legislatures erode probity in public life”.

The pertinent question that the Court was adjudicating upon was whether the privileges under Articles 105(3) (which deals with the powers, privileges, and immunities of the members of Parliament and Parliamentary committees) and 194(3) (which confers a similar immunity to the members of the State Legislatures) of the Constitution of India attract immunity to a member of Parliament or of the Legislatures who engages in bribery in connection with their speech or vote.

A Bench comprising Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, Justice AS Bopanna, Justice M.M. Sundresh, Justice PS Narasimha, Justice J.B. Pardiwala, Justice Sanjay Kumar and Justice Manoj Misra pronounced the judgment.

“…A member of Parliament or of the Legislature is immune in the performance of their functions in the House or a committee thereof from being prosecuted because the speech given or vote cast is functionally related to their performance as members of the legislature. The claim of a member to this immunity is its vital connect with the functioning of the House or committee. The reason why the freedom of speech and to vote have been guaranteed in Parliament is because without that Parliament or the legislature cannot function. Therefore, the extent of privilege exercisable by a member individually must satisfy the two-fold test laid down in Part F of this judgment namely its tether to the collective functioning of the House and its necessity”, the judgment read.

For the background, the present Criminal Appeal arose from a judgment dated February 17, 2014 by the Jharkhand High Court.

The appellant-Sita Soren, belonging to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, was a member of the Legislative Assembly of Jharkhand. The allegation against her was that during an election held on March 30, 2012 to elect two members of the Rajya Sabha representing the State, she accepted a bribe from an independent candidate for casting her vote in his favour.

However, as borne out from the open balloting for the Rajya Sabha seat, she did not cast her vote in favour of the alleged bribe giver and instead had cast her vote in favour of a candidate belonging to her own party. The round of election in question was annulled and a fresh election was held where the appellant voted in favour of the candidate from her own party again.

Pursuant to which, while claiming protection under Article 194(2) of the Constitution, relying on the judgment of the Constitution bench of the Supreme Court in PV Narasimha Rao v. State (CBI/SPE) (1998) 4 SCC 626, she had sought to quash the chargesheet and the criminal proceedings instituted against her.

The High Court thus declined to quash the criminal proceedings on the ground that the appellant had not cast her vote in favour of the alleged bribe giver and thus, was not entitled to the protection under Article 194(2).

Ultimately, by an order dated September 20 2023, a five-judge bench of the Court recorded prima facie reasons doubting the correctness of the decision in PV Narasimha Rao and referred the matter to a larger bench of seven judges.

Accordingly, the Bench while overruling the judgment concluded:

-The judgment of the majority in PV Narasimha Rao, which grants immunity from prosecution to a member of the legislature who has allegedly engaged in bribery for casting a vote or speaking has wide ramifications on public interest, probity in public life and parliamentary democracy. There is a grave danger of this Court allowing an error to be perpetuated if the decision were not reconsidered.

- 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.

- Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution seek to sustain an environment in which debate and deliberation can take place within the legislature. This purpose is destroyed when a member is induced to vote or speak in a certain manner because of an act of bribery;

- The expressions “anything” and “any” must be read in the context of the accompanying expressions in Articles 105(2) and 194(2). The words “in respect of” means ‘arising out of’ or ‘bearing a clear relation to’ and cannot be interpreted to mean anything which may have even a remote connection with the speech or vote given

- 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 scope, purpose and consequences of the court exercising jurisdiction in relation to a criminal offence and the authority of the House to discipline its members are different.

- The potential of misuse against individual members of the legislature is neither enhanced nor diminished by recognizing the jurisdiction of the court to prosecute a member of the legislature who is alleged to have indulged in an act of bribery;

-The offence of bribery is agnostic to the performance of the agreed action and crystallizes on the exchange of illegal gratification.

- PV Narasimha Rao results in a paradoxical outcome where a legislator is conferred with immunity when they accept a bribe and follow through by voting in the agreed direction.

Cause Title: Sita Soren v Union of India [Neutral Citation: 2024 INSC 161]

Read Judgment Here