Can MPs, MLAs Take Bribes For Votes? What Law Says, How Supreme Court Sees It

On March 4, 2024, a seven-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court overruled the majority judgment in the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) bribery case, which had held that members of the legislature enjoy immunity from being charged with bribery in relation to the way they vote or speak in the House.

The bench was led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud and the details of the judgment are still awaited.

To understand this landmark case, it is essential to delve into Article 194(2) and Article 105(2) of the Constitution, which provide identical protections to members of Parliament and the Legislature of a State.

These articles state that no member of the legislature 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.

Also, 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.

In 1998, a five-judge bench in P.V. Narasimha Rao v State (CBI/SPE) interpreted these articles literally and held that legislators enjoy immunity from criminal prosecution for bribery in matters connected to their speech and votes in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies.

However, this year, the court reconsidered the Narasimha case when an MLA from the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), Sita Soren, was accused of accepting a bribe in return for her vote during the 2012 Rajya Sabha elections.

In 2014, the Jharkhand High Court refused to quash the case filed against her by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), leading to an appeal at the Supreme Court that same year.

A bench comprising then CJI Ranjan Gogoi, alongside Justices Abdul Nazeer and Sanjiv Khanna, heard the appeal in March 2019 and observed that the decision in P.V. Narasimha dealt directly with such cases.

However, the bench took note of the fact that the case was decided by a narrow margin (a 3:2 split among the five judges) and stated that the issue was a matter of “substantial public importance”. As a result, they referred the matter to a larger bench.

In September 2023, a five-judge bench led by CJI Chandrachud demarcated three issues that needed to be reconsidered from the case and referred the case to a seven-judge bench.

The first issue was that the purpose of Articles 194(2) and 105(2) was to allow legislators to cast their votes without fear of reprisal, not to protect them from possible violations of criminal law. The second issue was related to Justice S.C.

Agarwal’s dissent in P.V. Narasimha, which seemingly protected bribe-takers who vote in accordance with the purpose of the bribe, and not those who act contrary to the purpose of the bribe.

Lastly, the bench observed that there is a need to decide if the offence of bribery is complete when the payment of the bribe is made or when the bribe is acted upon by the legislator.

During the proceedings, Senior Advocate Raju Ramachandran, appearing for Sita Soren, argued that legislators have absolute protection from court proceedings under the concerned articles.

The power to expel legislators for the moral implications of their actions has been given to the Speaker of Parliament and the Legislative Assembly, he argued.

On the other hand, the majority in P.V. Narasimha decided to give a broad meaning to the phrase “in respect of…” in Articles 105(2) and 194(2).

Essentially, they held that as long as there is a connection between the bribe taken and the speech or vote given, the legislator is immune from criminal prosecution. However, the bench reconsidered this decision and overruled it.

The final judgment is expected to have far-reaching implications, and it remains to be seen how it will impact future cases involving bribery allegations against legislators.