JMM leader, Shibu Soren is out of the Union Cabinet once again. And unlike in the past instance (in July 2004), Soren was sent out of the Cabinet within hours of his conviction for murder. Recall the earlier instance, when a Sessions Court in Jhakhand issued an arrest warrant against him and Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh was unable to even locate his cabinet colleague or even talk with him over the phone. Dr. Singh had to convey through the minister’s secretary that he wanted his resignation and it took a couple of days before Soren would exit from the Union cabinet and help avoid a situation where a Union Cabinet Minister is arrested and sent to jail.
That was an instance when the Prime Minister’s authority (or the lack of it) was out in the open, revealing in the process, the ugly face of the politics of blackmail that has come to mark the political discourse in recent times.
Take for instance the response from the ruling benches in Parliament when the opposition, led by the BJP, demanded that the Prime Minister explain as to why Soren was re-inducted into the cabinet after it was known that the CBI, directly under the Prime Minister (all the notion of the CBI being an autonomous body notwithstanding), was engaged in prosecuting the JMM leader for murder. The Congress members maintained that this was, in no way, different from Atal Behari Vajpayee’s act, in 1998, making L.K.Advani, M.M.Joshi and Uma Bharthi ministers in his cabinet.
There is, indeed, a lot of merit in this. But then, it is only an instance of the pot calling the kettle black. The problem, however, is that the issue involves larger concerns about democracy and institutions that were intended to nurture the democratic edifice. Hence, the form and the content of the debate too cannot be reduced to such low levels as a street brawl or a show of strength between members of extortionist gangs fighting for their ``rights’’ to collect hafta space in a vegetable market. In other words, the concerns here cannot be restricted to whether the Congress party is holier than the BJP or the other way.
The facts in the Soren case bring this to the fore. Here was a leader, who at one point of time had stood up for the cause of the tribals in the Jharkhand region, who could galvanise the adivasis to bare their chests to the armed policeman, having degenerated into a power broker in the worst sense of the term. Soren ended up bartering away the goodwill and the loyalty that the poor and oppressed adivasis had towards him for several crores and the July 1993 scandal was only one such case of bartering. It was established then that he, along with the other JMM MPs collected large amounts from the Congress ministers in exchange for his vote in support of the P.V.Narasimha Rao Government. His private secretary, Sashi Nath Jha (had nothing to do with the adivasis cause) wanted a share of that ill-gotten money; a plain and straight case of blackmail and extortion. And Soren ended up getting Jha murdered.
It was established several years ago that Soren took money from Narasimha Rao’s men in July 1993. But then, Article 105 of the Constitution, provided him with immunity, from being prosecuted on charges that his vote against a no-confidence motion against the then Government in return for that. It was one of those strange instances when the apex court held the bribe taker innocent not because evidence was lacking but because the Constitution provided him immunity from being sent up for trial.
It has now been established, for the second time, that Soren was paid off in July 1993 and that his secretary, Jha, knew about that and got killed because he tried blackmailing Soren and part with some of that ill-gotten money. And Soren has been convicted because all this, including the fact that he took money from Narasimha Rao’s men in July 1993 just about the time when the Government was almost falling but was saved because Soren and other JMM MPs voted for him in the Lok Sabha, was established before the sessions judge.
And yet, there is no way to prosecute him and try him on a charge of subverting democracy by facilitating an extended life for the Narasimha Rao Government beyond July 1993. If Soren had not voted against the motion then (and voted in the manner he did only after he was paid off), the Government would have fallen then and there. It survived until May 1996! This, indeed, was a case of subversion and a more heinous crime than murder.
Hence it is necessary that the scope of Article 105 of the Constitution and the privileges it entails on MPs and MLAs is revisited once again and its scope redefined. The MPs and the MLAs must and shall be entitled immunity from vexatious trials in the lower judiciary when they do their jobs. And the job of the legislator, apart from participating in the passage of laws, is to check the vagaries of the Executive and expose scandals. Article 105 of the Constitution intends this and this was used by such veterans like Feroze Gandhi (to deal with the Mundra scandal), Jyotirmoy Basu (to deal with the Maruti scandal) and Madhu Dandavate (to deal with A.R.Antulay’s scandalous engagement with the Indira Pratishtan).
It is time that the Supreme Court defines and set out the parameters for use of this Constitutional provision and save it from being abused.