Keeping criminals out

Landmark SC verdict

The subdued and rather sheepish reaction of the political parties to the Supreme Court verdict on automatic disqualification of MPs and MLAs convicted of criminal charges betrays their uneasiness at having to accept one of the most far-reaching changes to electoral laws.

Decriminalisation of politics is one of the most important components of electoral reforms which had been talked about for over two decades, but unfortunately, no major political party had the gumption or willingness to adopt it. They knew that it was a cancer which they had to get rid of at some stage or the other for the good of democracy, but they could not summon enough courage to tackle the growing menace. In the prevailing atmosphere, probably they also found it ‘convenient’ to ignore public criticism on this score as all parties were in it.

The Election Commission had been sounding the warning bell for long, but in the absence of legislative backing, the farthest it could go was to force the political parties to declare the criminal antecedence of their candidates. When information began to be tabulated, it became clear how deep the malaise had spread. Criminality of politics is now so deeply ingrained that among the elected representatives, the current Lok Sabha has around 30 per cent or 162 of the 543 members and 31 per cent or 1,258 of the 4,032 MLAs in state Assemblies with criminal cases pending against them.

Top political leaders have faced embarrassing questions about fielding or continuing to support those with criminal background in politics, but their standard defence had been that the law permitted the elements to contest and continue in office as long as their appeals were pending in higher courts. The truth is, over time, the use of money and muscle power has become so much part of elections at every level, that there was a conspiracy of silent acquiescence among all political parties.

But the Supreme Court has now removed that fig leaf of defence by declaring that Parliament has exceeded its powers by enacting the provision (Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act) that gives a convicted lawmaker the right to remain in office on the grounds that appeals have been filed and pending. After this judgement, which will have only prospective effect, the MPs and MLAs will not only be disqualified from holding office from the date of conviction by a trial court, but they will also be debarred from elections for six years or until they are cleared of the charges.
The verdict will no doubt have serious implications for political parties like the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party among others as their supremos Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad and Mayawati are all facing criminal trials on various charges. Considering the sweeping nature of the judgment, they will face the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, especially with the Lok Sabha elections less than a year away.

Extremely queasy

The BJP will also be extremely queasy as investigating agencies are closing in on its undeclared prime ministerial candidate, the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to haul him up before courts for his alleged role in 2002 riots, though he has so far managed to escape the noose rather fortuitously.

The fact of the matter is that none of the political parties will be happy with the verdict as it will put an end to their laissez-faire attitude towards the selection of candidates in the coming elections. When it comes to distribution of party tickets they will have to be extremely careful about not fielding tainted candidates in the elections. The immediate fallout will be on the upcoming elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Delhi and Mizoram. Parties will take a close look at the criminal record of candidates before selecting them, as any subsequent disqualification could have a bearing on being able to form the government or sitting in the opposition, especially where there is a close race.

The only point of contention against the verdict is that there could be attempts by rival claimants to deny tickets or positions of power even to deserving candidates by foisting ‘false’ cases. It is a genuine apprehension in a politically fractious society like ours and that’s where the courts have a responsibility to speed up trials and ensure that the innocent candidates do not suffer. But in the current scenario, that is the least of the problems considering that we are faced with a situation of a plethora of known criminals with multiple rape, murder and kidnapping cases becoming lawmakers and the priority should be to keep them out of positions of power.

The Supreme Court verdict is the second major blow to political parties in recent times after the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) ruled that the parties are answerable to people’s queries under the Right to Information Act. The CIC took the view that since political parties get major concessions from the government in terms of accommodation and other benefits and that they receive public funds, they need to open themselves up to public scrutiny. Political parties have already reacted angrily to the CIC order and there seems to be a concerted move to overturn it with legislation.
The leaders should realise that what the apex court and the CIC have done is in the larger interest of democracy and there will be a strong public backing for both the measures. Any move to scuttle them, it must be said, will be highly unpopular with the people, who are supposed to be their ‘masters.’

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