Decriminalizing Politics: Over To Political Parties Now To Weed Out The Chaff
Even while delivering his first speech in the Rajya Sabha on June 11, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought the support of lawmakers, urging the supreme court to complete the trials of pending criminal cases against MPs within a year. “When parties see seats being rendered empty, they will get the message… In five years, parliament will be taint-free. The experiment can then be taken to assemblies and municipalities.”
This statement is significant in light of the supreme court judgment last year on a writ petition filed by advocate Lily Thomas and SN Shukla of Lok Prahari which stated that if a sitting MP/MLA is convicted of charges listed under Sections 8(1), 8(2) and 8(3) of the Representation of the People (RP) Act, then he/she would be disqualified and the seat would be declared vacant.
The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) analysed affidavits of the newly elected MPs with self-declared criminal cases where the charges have been framed. Of 57 MPs who have declared criminal cases where the charges have been framed, 53 have declared criminal cases under Sections 8(1) and 8(3). These criminal cases have been pending for an average of 10 years and include charges of murder, attempt to murder, electoral violations, kidnapping, dacoity, promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.
These MPs face disqualification if convicted of these charges and their seats would be declared vacant. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) itself has 24 MPs who have declared such criminal cases and the party may lose majority if all these MPs are convicted of charges listed under Section 8(1) and 8(3). What’s more, this is not a possibility in the far future. According to an interim order in March this year, on a PIL by the Public Interest Foundation, a supreme court bench taking note of the fact that the cases pending against MPs and MLAs often drag on for years, directed that “in relation to sitting MPs and MLAs who have charges framed against them for the offences which are specified in Sections 8(1), 8(2) and 8(3) of the RP Act, the trial shall be concluded as speedily and expeditiously as may be possible and in no case later than one year from the date of the framing of charge(s).” The 16th Lok Sabha might face many vacant seats in the coming year if these MPs are convicted.
What is the implication of a possible disqualification of the MPs for the future? The greatest political exercise in the country was concluded about a month ago. The amount of time, money and energy invested into the election campaign by the parties are a testimony to the importance of the vote of each citizen.
The increase in the polling percentage in almost every constituency of the country shows that the efforts of the election commission and various other organisations, to increase voter participation have paid off.
However, this gargantuan exercise can only be complemented with cleaner candidates in the fray. The quality of governance is directly proportional to the quality of legislators we have. The disqualification of an MP while in office leads to instability in parliament and it is the taxpayer who is burdened with the extra cost of conducting by-elections for the seats that are left vacant.
While campaigning for the 2014 elections, Modi stated that “the next parliament would be cleaned by punishing the guilty” and his recent statement in the Rajya Sabha as the newly elected PM is consistent with his commitment towards weeding out criminals from politics. However, according to data collected by ADR from the affidavits of the contesting candidates, the BJP gave the ticket to 140 candidates with criminal cases – or 33% of the 428 BJP candidates had self-declared criminal cases. Further, 185 new MPs have declared pending criminal cases against themselves and 111 of them have serious criminal cases. These self-declared criminal cases have been pending against the 185 MPs for an average of seven years. Currently, there are 1,353 (33%) sitting MLAs who have declared pending criminal cases against themselves.
Clearly, the implications of this judgment have not been fathomed by the political parties fielding such candidates in the parliamentary and assembly elections. In fact, through the analysis of the data collected since the inception of National Election Watch (NEW) in 2002, it is noted that the trend of criminalisation of politics has only increased. In 2004, 25% of the elected MPs had declared criminal cases against themselves. This number increased to 30% after the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and now it is at an alarming 34%.
The landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in the Lily Thomas case is a giant leap forward to combat the malaise of crime in politics. One of the major reasons why candidates with criminal cases go on to win the elections is because political parties continue to field such candidates. During the Lok Sabha 2014 elections, 179 constituencies had three or more candidates with criminal cases. What choice does the citizen have then while casting his/her vote? This judgment ensures that the MPs and MLAs convicted of cases under Section 8 of the RP Act are not allowed to continue office. This is paramount in view of the sanctity of the position a legislative representative holds.
The PM stated in the Rajya Sabha that any MP with even an FIR registered against him/her should have his criminal cases disposed of in a year. While that seems like a task that might burden the lower and upper courts far too much to be practical, it is prudent to fast-track at least the cases against MPs where the charges that have been framed fall under Sections 8(1), 8(2) and 8(3) of the RP Act. The Supreme Court directed just that for MPs and MLAs, on March 10 in the interim order on the PIL. According to the data analysed by ADR, the cases against 53 PMs, whose charges fall under Sections 8(1) and 8(3), are liable to be disposed of in a year.
While the task at hand is monumental, let us hope that the criminal cases against these MPs are tried fairly and the state machinery is not used to withdraw cases. In the coming months we may see disqualification of some MPs, and let that be a deterrent against candidates with serious criminal cases to contest elections in the future.