Bar offenders

Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath’s call for immediate debarring of those facing serious criminal charges from contesting elections will strike a chord with many Indians who are deeply concerned over the criminalisation of politics in this country.

Existing laws forbid those convicted for heinous crimes from contesting elections, not those charged with such crimes. Consequently, Parliament and several State assemblies have legislators who are facing charges for murder, rape, gang-rape and dacoity. And their numbers are not insignificant. The CEC’s recommendation has come close on the heels of a question raised by the Supreme Court regarding the preferential treatment accorded to legislators under Section 8(4) of the Representation of People Act. Under this provision, sitting members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies cannot be disqualified on their conviction even for heinous crimes.

Allowing those with serious criminal charges to contest elections and convicts to continue functioning as MPs and MLAs has had serious impact on the health of our democracy. India’s Parliament and State assemblies have emerged safe havens for criminals wishing to escape conviction and jail terms. It has resulted in a sharp fall in the quality of our legislators. It has implications for the rule of law and the efficacy of India’s criminal justice system. What legislation to protect us from sexual violence can we expect if those mandated to introduce and enact laws are violators of the law themselves? After all, why would a legislator who faces rape charges act to recommend stern punishment for rapists? It explains why Parliament has not enacted legislation barring people facing serious criminal charges from contesting elections.

Debarring people facing serious criminal charges from contesting elections were part of reform proposals put forward by the Election Commission in 1998, 1999, 2004 and 2006. It was ignored by successive governments. When questioned about the criminalisation of our legislators, political parties often blame each other. However, none of them are above board, some parties only being worse offenders than others in fielding criminals in elections. Parties often claim they are unable to push through legislation in this regard given the opposition they came up against in Parliament. However, what is stopping them from fielding candidates with clean records? It is unlikely that parties will act on their own initiative to cleanse our legislators of criminals. Civil society must force the issue onto the agenda of the 2014 General Election.

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