The Indian government has initiated steps to change the anti-corruption law to formally empower the presiding officers of Parliament and state assemblies to grant sanction to prosecute MPs and MLAs for graft.
According to a tentative proposal initiated by the ministry of personnel under the Prime Minister's Office, the Lok Sabha speaker and Rajya Sabha chairperson would be the designated authorities to give the necessary sanction in the case of MPs.
Similarly, in cases of corruption involving members of legislative assemblies and councils in states, the presiding officers of the states' houses would have the power to allow the politicians to be prosecuted.
The proposal to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, was cleared last month by a Group of Ministers, headed by Home Minister Shivraj Patil. It comprised Law Minister HR Bhardwaj and Minister of State for Personnel Suresh Pachauri.
Later, it was sent to the Legislative Department in the law ministry to draft a cabinet note and a bill to amend Section 19 of the act, which provides that an investigative agency has to secure prior sanction from the appropriate authority to prosecute corrupt public servants.
Section 19 would be amended to empower the presiding officers of parliament and state legislatures with the authority to grant the necessary sanction.
Sources in the ministry of personnel said they hoped the bill would get cabinet approval in time to be introduced in parliament during the monsoon session.
The proposal to amend the Prevention of Corruption Act comes nearly nine years after the Supreme Court in a 1998 ruling on the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs (JMM) bribery case held that MPs and MLAs are "public servants" within the meaning of the act.
In the 1998 ruling, in the case involving payment of bribes to JMM and other MPs to vote in favour of the Narasimha Rao government during a no-confidence motion against it in 1993, the apex court also upheld the need to have an appropriate sanctioning authority to prosecute MPs and MLAs - like in the case of other government officials.
The ruling had triggered debate as to who should be considered the appropriate authority to grant permission to prosecute the corrupt MPs and legislators - the Election Commission, the Indian president or presiding officers of legislative bodies.
A subsequent executive order granted presiding officers the authority to grant sanction to prosecute members of their respective houses.
Even as the government takes steps to formally legalise the existing arrangement by amending the Prevention of Corruption Act, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, who has been at the forefront of a campaign against corruption in public life, described the government's moves as "too little and too late".
Bhushan said since its 1998 ruling in the JMM MPs case, the apex court has gone several steps ahead on the need for sanction to prosecute public servants.
"In a recent case of corruption involving a chief minister of one state, the apex court held that a corrupt deed is not part of the official duty of a public servant and so there should be no need to procure sanction to prosecute a corrupt public servant," said Bhushan.
He added, "In yet another case, the apex court ruled that there should be no need to seek sanction to prosecute a former MP or MLA for a corrupt deed by him during his membership of parliament or legislature as he is not a public servant as present."
The noted lawyer said that even the Central Vigilance Commission had written to the government time and again to do away with the need to seek sanction to prosecute public servants, saying the provision was generally misused to indefinitely delay prosecution of corrupt officials and public servants.
Recently, after Uttar Pradesh Governor TV Rajeshwar refused sanction to prosecute Chief Minister Mayawati for her alleged role in the Taj Corridor scam, a public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court asking the government to do away with Section 19 of the Act, which provides for mandatory sanction to prosecute public servants, on the grounds that the provision violated the constitutional right to equality.