Tuesday, April 20, 2021
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The house out of order

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Elections are imminent. Among various issues discussed, one major issue remains criminality in politics. Criminality exists, and that it flourishes so many decades after independence, is certainly a disgrace. According to Association for Democratic Reforms, 2019 report, in 2004, 24% of the Members of Parliament had criminal cases pending against them; in 2009 it went up to 30%; in 2009 to 34% and in 2019 as many as 43% of MPs had criminal cases pending against them. India is the only democratic country with a free press where we find a problem of this dimension.

As politics dominates the bureaucracy, and reins in business, civil society and the media, we need governance that is free of the “criminal” virus. Capability is not sufficient. The intent to do public service is also required. The British were capable, but we still did not want them. Today, it is not about any party, it is about the political system. Cleansing politics from “criminal” virus begins with purifying political parties itself, as they are the central institution of the India’s democracy.

Effect of Criminalisation of  Politics

  • Against the Principle of Free and Fair Election: Using money and muscle power in elections, limits the choices of voters to elect a suitable candidate and it is also against the ethos of free and fair election which is the bedrock of a democracy.
  • Affecting Good Governance: The major problem is that the law-breakers become law-makers this affects the efficiency of the democratic process in delivering good governance. These unhealthy tendencies in the democratic system reflect a poor image of the nature of India’s state institutions and the quality of its elected representatives.
  • Affecting Integrity of Public Servants: It also leads to increased circulation of black money during and after elections, which in turn increases corruption in society and affects the working of public servants.
  • Causes Social Disharmony: Many voters feel that our country’s criminal justice system has broken down actually prefer to vote for those candidates, criminal or otherwise, whom they feel can deliver “justice” to them. Many perceive the institutions of state to be outside their reach, even as clogged courts and prohibitive lawyers’ fees fail them in their search of the settlement of their problems- on issue largely relating to property, land and social structure. It introduces a culture of violence in society and sets a bad precedent for the youth to follow and reduces people’s faith in democracy as a system of governance.

Indeed, it is only the apex court that has been responsible for significant reforms in helping to cleanse the body politic. Apart from the important “disclosure” order of 2002/2003 whereby all candidates must submit an affidavit disclosing any and all cases registered against them, the Court has, in the last few years, passed other significant orders: These relate to the EVMs and by another significant order of July 10, 2013 (Lily Thomas v. union of India), where they consciously ended the unfair privilege accorded to MPs/MLAs, which had hitherto enabled them to retain their memberships, even upon an order of conviction- by simply filing an appeal within three months. It was the decision that sent Lalu Prasad Yadav to jail and debarred him from contesting an election for six years.

Exercising the power of complete justice under Article 142 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court (in Public Interest Foundation and Ors. v. Union of India case) made it mandatory for the political parties to upload on their websites detailed information regarding individuals (with pending criminal cases) who have been selected as candidates. Further, this information must be published in one local vernacular newspaper and one national newspaper and on the official social media platforms of the political party, including Facebook and Twitter. The court has set another guideline for the same, of 48 hours within the selection of the candidate or two weeks, before the first date for filing of nominations, whichever is earlier.

Over the years, the judiciary has been proactive in expanding fundamental rights of information to curb criminalisation in politics. Disclosure of criminal antecedent is one such effort by the judiciary.

The Way Forward

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest serving US president, says “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” This echoes Gandhi’s statement on the need to educate voters. This is a demand side solution, and the onus for this lies squarely with civil society. It cannot and will not be done by the Government, political parties, religious institutions, media or business houses. The Election Commission does do this, but here we are referring to a deeper education that enables voters to see the whole election and governance process in totality. Perhaps the digital media which is far more democratic and decentralized will play a role in the coming years. At the same time supply side solutions are also required. If the rules of the game give greater incentive to misuse of money and power in elections, with no penalties, rising public awareness will in the long run lead to greater strife between the people and the Government.

In the recent past several Commissions have been set up to examine the issue of electoral and political reforms. On the legal front, there is a long list of suggested remedies by the various Commissions. There is no dearth of well thought out advice on issues of election expenses, criminalization, voter registration, and conduct of elections. The will to implement them is not there as yet. Here again civil society can play a catalytic role by carefully studying these recommendations and highlighting them to build public opinion. This is however a long and slow process, unless some crisis can trigger off change. But even for that the ground needs to be prepared.

It is in the interest of purity of elections which form the bedrock of our participatory democracy. A Change must also come from the general public where they should boycott candidates with serious criminal antecedent. To this extent awareness in public about the potential benefits which could accrue from choosing candidates without criminal antecedents vis-à-vis harm which they incur when they choose candidates with criminal antecedents would go a long way in ensuring the sanctity of our elections.

Therefore, it is imperative that the change must be imbibed from within- both by political parties and the public.

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