On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of India decided against debarring charge-sheeted lawmakers from contesting elections. It, however, asked Parliament to pass laws barring those accused of crime from fighting elections, and strengthen the election commission’s hands. The court said it cannot legislate for Parliament and “as conscience-keepers of the Constitution, we (Supreme Court) can ask you (Parliament) to do it.”
One cannot but sigh in disappointment. This is not only because the legislature does not inspire confidence, but also because the judiciary usually comes to the rescue when the legislature fails.
Yes, such a law could work against legislators who are accused (and not convicted) of a crime. The potential for such legislation being misused by rival parties, and especially the party in power, weakens the case for it.
That said, it is wishful thinking to expect political parties to do a course correction on their own. If various political parties are yet to bar criminals from contesting on their ticket, what hope is there that they will have a change of heart now?
In 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled that legislators convicted for two or more years in prison would be immediately expelled, the then Congress-led UPA government moved a bill in Rajya Sabha and an ordinance to nullify the judgment. After widespread resentment, and an impromptu reaction by Rahul Gandhi at a press conference at the Delhi Press Club where he called the ordinance a “complete nonsense” — the government pulled back.
Given this precedent, it is hard to believe that our legislators would channel their conscience and pass a legislation to prevent the criminalisation of politics.
There is also another reason for this scepticism. This is because over the years the number of people with criminal antecedence winning elections has been on the rise. According to reports by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), 185 winning candidates in the 2014 general elections had criminal cases against them compared to 162 in the 2009 polls. Similarly, in 2009, 15 percent of the winners had serious criminal cases, such as “murder, attempt to murder, communal disharmony, kidnapping, crimes against women” against them. This rose to 21 percent in 2014. The 2014 ADR report shows that the chances of winning for a candidate with criminal cases was more than for one with a clean record.
A law against criminals entering the political system will only further strengthen India’s democracy, but in a system where political funding is still opaque, it is the “cold, hard cash” that forces political parties to select candidates with criminal records.
Unfortunately corruption and the presence of criminals in politics is yet to become an electoral issue. Political parties are likely to address this issue effectively when it becomes an electoral issue. Sadly, at the moment there is no sign to show that the rap sheet of a candidate is a discouraging factor for a political party when choosing a candidate.