The Supreme Court's verdict upholding Parliament's unprecedented decision to expel 11 MPs caught accepting bribes on the camera makes both the legislature and its members accountable for the actions.
In immediate terms, it clears the way for elections in constituencies unrepresented for nearly a year. But in the longer run, the elected bodies can build upon the verdict to repair their public image.
"The verdict made it clear that corruption or improper behaviour, which is unbecoming of the position someone holds, would not be tolerated…Parliament's decision to expel its MPs showed that such behaviour was not acceptable even to their own parliamentary colleagues," noted Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee said.
In a way, the verdict also vindicated the Speaker's stand in the face of the Court notice on petitioners pleas against their expulsion. He had refused to respond to it personally or allow anyone from his Secretariat to do so on the ground that it was Parliament's prerogative to take its errant MPs to task for lowering its dignity.
In this case, one Rajya Sabha and 10 Lok Sabha MPs were expelled for taking money in lieu of their basic privilege of raising questions to make the government accountable. They had challenged their disqualification as malafide and unconstitutional — an allegation rejected by the Court. "The fact that he (the Speaker) had constituted an inquiry committee with members drawn also from parties in opposition rather goes to show that the resolve at that stage was to find the truth. ..We are unable to accept the allegation of malafide…it cannot be ignored that the dissent within the respective committees of the two Houses pertained to the procedure adopted. Nothing less and nothing more. Further…the resolutions (for disqualification) were virtually unanimous," the court said.
Political parties have welcomed the SC verdict. But political scientist CP Bhambri, does not believe that the expulsion or the upholding of expulsion would put an end to the practice of motivated questions. "It will not end the trend. Only those who were caught were punished," he said.
However, former Lok Sabha Secretary General GC Malhotra did not agree with Bhambri. He said the verdict will lift Parliament's image among the people and inspire other institutions — such as the media, the election commission and the people themselves — to exercise greater vigil against legislators prone to misconduct. By the Speaker's own admission, there are 40 members with serious criminal cases in the 14th Lok Sabha. The charges against them range from the demolition of the Babri Masjid to murder and rape.
"Although as yet unconnected, the SC judgement does indirectly support the view that if Parliament finds incontrovertible and obvious evidence of illegality and criminality, it can take collective action as a House without going through interminable criminal justice process," remarked Rajya Sabha MP and noted lawyer Abhishek Singhvi.
JMM leader Shibu Soren, convicted in a murder case, had to quit the Union Cabinet. But he remains a member of the Lok Sabha pending appeal against his conviction. Likewise, the controversy over MPs holding offices of profit — that saw the Samajwadi Party's Jaya Bachchan being expelled and Sonia Gandhi resigning her seat to recontest and return to the House — was another lesson for the elected representatives who disregarded the law that allowed them to hold only such offices that were specifically exempted from attracting disqualification.
Parliament amended eventually the law to include 56 posts in the exempted list. But that legislation has also been challenged in Court.
In fact, a series of developments in 2005-06 have sent out a strong message: that elected representatives have to be very careful in performing their duties and no misconduct or bypassing rules would be tolerated. "There were cases pertaining to the office of profit, the cash for query scandal, the misappropriation of MPLAD fund. Yet, Parliament's decision to punish its members caught on the camera gave a clear message that MPs are not above the law. It brought the institution of Parliament back into public esteem," said Malhotra.