Speedy poll reforms need of the hour

Are the frustrating old days of being corrupt and not held guilty over? Will it lead to decriminalisation of politics? Will political parties draw a lesson and not field tainted politicians? Is there a need to bring in more electoral reforms?

A resurgent and euphoric India is debating these and many other questions since two former Bihar chief ministers Lalu Prasad and Jagannath Mishra were convicted by a Ranchi court for siphoning off more than Rs 33 crore from a Chaibasa treasury of the state animal husbandry department.  

The verdict piggy rode on public sentiment built over a historical judgement Supreme Court delivered in July that removed the anomaly in the existing Representation of People Act to bring politicians on a par with aam admi – which resulted in automatic disqualification of convicted MPs and MLAs. So far, Section 8.4 of the RP Act had given privilege to MPs and MLAs so that they could remain lawmakers by appealing against their conviction orders before superior courts.

Lalu, who allegedly managed to manipulate the justice delivery system exploiting his proximity first to the United Front government in 1996 and later the two successive UPA regimes before he ran out of luck,  besides Jagannath Mishra and JD (U) MP Jagdish Sharma have become the first casualty of the SC judgement. Along with them, Congress MP from Uttar Pradesh Rashid Masood, convicted in a medical seat scam, is set to lose Parliament membership.

What the SC verdict has done is that it has set the ball rolling on weeding out the corrupt and criminals from getting access to Parliament and Assemblies by enhancing parameters of probity in public life.

 It has squeezed opportunities to exploit public votes.  Veteran CPI leader Gurudas Dasgupta is of the view that the “SC order is a stepping stone in the direction of bringing accountability in electoral politics…Now the political parties will think twice before giving Lok Sabha

 and Assembly tickets to politicians facing charges because they will lose seats if candidates win and then get convicted,” the Left MP from West Bengal asserted.
Though recently the Supreme Court  came up with progressive judgments on electoral reforms, the excitement could be short-lived in the absence of more structural reforms required to lower the legal benchmark for disqualification of the lawmakers. Also, successive governments conveniently ignored the several proposals of the Election Commission relating to reforms. Way back in 2004, the Election Commission wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking amendment in the RP Act to disqualify a candidate, accused in cases filed six months before an election, once the court framed charges. There was hardly action from the government.

Notwithstanding the principle that a person is deemed to be innocent till proven guilty, the EC felt such restrictions would be in public interest and recommended the same to the Law Commission recently. The logic was that since the courts take long to pronounce judgments, a third party verification of the police charges by independent judges (which actually happens when charges are framed by the court) should be enough ground for disqualification. 

For Lalu to get convicted, it took 17 years despite the case was heard in a special CBI court. The latest data compiled by election watchdog Association for Democratic Reforms confirms scary picture of sluggish court proceedings, which sadly emboldens politicians to continue with abhorring crime and contemptuous loot of public resources.

Two Samajwadi Party MLAs - Rameshwar Singh and Mitrasen - for example, have managed to survive 28 years in the politics despite serious charge of murder and attempt to murder are spending in a UP court.

Of the total 62,847 candidates, 11,063 have declared that they are facing criminal cases and out of them 5,253 lawmakers are confronted with serious charges. To break the figures further, 76 sitting MPs from Lok Sabha and 16 Rajya Sabha members are facing cases. When the fate of these politicians will be decided?

For the Supreme Court order on convicted lawmakers to acquire teeth, effective and unbiased probe and speedy trial is more important.  Noted lawyer Fali Nariman, in his exhaustive book, The State of the Nation, rues that at times, judges are “out of touch with realities of public expectations” as the judiciary is burdened with normal gruelling work schedule.

Citing an example of first big ticket Securities scam that rocked the nation in early ’90s and which had Harshad Mehta as the principal character, Nariman wrote “it was a disappointment to see that the judges (of SC) who admitted the appeal did not take cue from pent-up public reaction to the securities scam”.

A public momentum is building up demanding accountability, transparency and decisiveness in the polity. We have enough laws and what we need is clean politicians to implement it as Dalit icon and one of the lead architects of Constitution, B R Ambedkar, said in 1949: “However  good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called upon to work it happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it happen to be a good lot..”

Related Articles:

“Too early to write off Lalu”

Towards a cleaner polity…

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