Crime and Money in Electoral Politics: How can this trend be reversed?

Systemic corruption and sponsored criminalization have corroded the fundamental core of elective democracy and consequently, the constitutional governance. On one hand there is a free flow of unaccounted money at the disposal of political parties during elections and on the other hand, criminal elements have been playing a major role in the electoral process in India both as candidates for elections and as party workers. The number of Political Parties in India has been continuously increasing and attracting persons with high assets and criminal background. The fundamental reason why candidates with money and muscle power are able to dominate politics is because no political party has seriously pursued electoral and political party reforms. Voters meanwhile have either been alienated or become cynical and no longer really expect good governance.

The effect of money power and criminalization of politics has been examined by several committees and authorities which have repeatedly emphasized the need to weed out criminal elements and unaccounted money from politics. Vohra Committee Report, 1993; Indrajeet Gupta Committee Report on State Finding of Elections; The 170th Report of Law Commission of India on Reforms of the Electoral Laws (1999); National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, 2000; The Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice (2007); Ethics in Governance Report: Second Administrative Reforms Commission,2007; The 244th Law Commission of India Report on Electoral Disqualification; Justice J.S Verma Committee Report on Criminal Law Amendment; The 255th Law Commission Report on Electoral Reforms are few of these committees/commissions which had considered the problem of money and muscle in elections. Some of the important recommendations are as follows:

•Disqualification from contesting elections if charges have been framed against a candidate in an offence punishable with imprisonment for a maximum period of five years or more.
•Permanent disqualification of candidates who are convicted of heinous crimes like rape, murder, dacoity, robbery, crimes against women etc.
•Disqualification of candidates furnishing false information in the election affidavit.
•Limit on the election expenditure of political parties.
•Disclosure of all sources of funds received by the political parties, irrespective of the amount.
•Cancellation of tax exemptions given to the political parties in case of default.
•Requirement to strengthen NOTA and make it more effective.
•Immediate need to bring political parties under the ambit of RTI Act.
•Introduce provisions for inner-party democracy within political parties/Choosing of candidates.
•Bring in a comprehensive bill to regulate working of political parties/Legislation for regulation and functioning of Political Parties.

In an effort towards making electoral and political process transparent as well as accountable in their functioning Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) has filed a petition in the Supreme Court to bring political parties under the ambit of RTI Act. ADR has also challenged in the Supreme Court amendments brought to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 & 1976 respectively that changed the definition of a “foreign source” to quietly let BJP and the Congress off the legal hook of the Delhi High Court judgment where they were found guilty of taking foreign funding. ADR has also challenged the Finance Act, 2017 enacted as Money Bill which had introduced a system of electoral bonds and had also removed the previous limit of 7.5 per cent of the company’s average three-year net profit for political donations. A petition has been also filed in the Delhi High Court for the regulation and monitoring of election expenses of political parties and to also have a limit on the election expenditure of political parties.

Furthermore, few electoral reforms initiated over the last two-three decades have been due to legal advocacy and judicial activism. Indian judiciary has also tried to safeguard and ensure that the representative democracy is truly reflected in the form of people’s will and mandate. To name a few of such landmark judgments;

•Disclosure of criminal, financial and educational details by candidates contesting elections to Parliament and State Assemblies.
•Declaration of Section 8(4) of the Representation of People Act unconstitutional, which allowed a •Member of the Parliament and State Legislative Assemblies to retain their membership of the House they were elected to, for three months to enable them to file an appeal in the higher court.
•Inclusion of NOTA buttons on the EVMs.
•Direction to all High Courts to conclude trial against sitting MPs and MLAs who have charges framed against them for the offences specified under Section 8(1), 8(2) and 8(3) of the RP Act, within one year from the date of the framing of charge(s).
•Compulsory for the Returning Officers to ensure that the affidavits filed by the contestant blank all respects and to reject the affidavits having blank particulars.
•Non-disclosure of information, which is very vital to enable the voter to form his/her opinion about the candidate’s antecedents, results in misinformation and disinformation thereby influencing the voters to take an uninformed decision.
•Inclusion of column pertaining to “Sources of income” of the candidate, spouse and dependents in Form 26.
•Publication and widely circulation of information related to criminal background by candidates as well as political parties.

The Executive and the Legislature are most reluctant to undertake electoral reforms because of the obvious bias and prejudice. As a matter of fact, the political establishments have completely disregarded or intentionally side-lined the reforms suggested by various committees, citizens and civil societies. The Judiciary has only been somewhat successful since most of the directions given by courts are eventually amended by the successive governments for their own benefit. Over a period, we have observed criminalization, burgeoning election expenditure, political party funding, and inadequate reporting and disclosure laws. There is a complete agreement that change is needed, but there are serious differences on how to go about it. We may be at the centre or vortex of a whirlpool of events. It is high time to examine aspects of crime and money in politics with a specific focus on ‘how to reverse this trend’ and also suggest measures required to make elected representatives and political parties more responsive towards initiating reforms.