Karnataka: A thumping victory and some concerns

The problem of cleansing politics has a supply side and a demand side. The latter aspect means that voters need to choose clean candidates. Demand for tainted politicians should decrease.

It is a record broken after thirty-four years. Both in terms of numbers of seats and vote share, the Congress Party’s victory in the elections to the State Assembly of Karnataka is the highest it has been in the past thirty-four years. It is a decisive and sweeping mandate, with a record voter turnout of 72%. There will be endless analyses of the factors and players who contributed to this thumping victory. Was it a severe case of anti-incumbency? Karnataka has never returned an incumbent back to power since 1985. Was it because of disgust against the corruption captured by the phrase of “40% commission”? Was it because of an excessive focus on issues touching religious fault lines? Was it voter fatigue with hate speech? These are all negative motivator factors.

What about the positive motivators that led to this victory? Was it the five guarantees that the Congress manifesto mentioned? These were about free power, guaranteed minimum income, free food and free bus passes, and unemployment insurance. Some of these promises sound like freebies and some like social protection. The latter is needed, and the former is troublesome. In the end, this debate about causative factors will never be conclusive. All factors surely mattered to some extent. And the voters as always are influenced more by emotive factors than rational, economic or objective factors. This is a feature of all political elections in India.

But there is one aspect of the outcome which should worry us all. It is about the rise of criminal elements. If anything, it calls for an urgent need for reforms which can cleanse the electoral process. The share of winning candidates who have pending criminal cases has jumped sharply from 35% in 2018 to 55%. The rising share cuts across political parties. Of these 55% newly elected legislators, even if one looks at those with only serious criminal cases, the trend is alarming. That share of winning candidates has gone up from 24 to 32%. The serious cases are those related to murder, assault, kidnap and rape or economic offences. These are non-bailable offences, which attract a maximum punishment of 5 years or more. The law is clear about the definition of what constitutes a “crime”. These are not merely the filing of a complaint, or a First Information Report (FIR) with the police. The criminal cases are the outcome of a competent magistrate applying his or her judicial mind, and then framing charges. Of course, a person is innocent until proven guilty. Only convicted persons are barred from contesting elections. And that too if the conviction is not under appeal in a higher court. Pending cases can go on for years and years in the appeal process. Hence the electoral law as it stands has failed to keep criminal elements out of our State legislatures and parliament. Prime Minister Modi in his maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha in June 2014 had expressed great anguish about this issue. He had said that cleansing the polity of criminal elements would be a top priority and asked the courts to fast track these particular cases. But no new law has been passed for disqualification.

The issue of disqualifying candidates with criminal backgrounds has been discussed for more than three decades. The 170th report of the fifteenth law commission under Justice Jeevan Reddy in 1999 had submitted reforms to disqualify candidates. The 244th report of the twentieth law commission under Justice A P Shah had very detailed proposals for disqualifying criminal candidates. This report was submitted in February 2014. Much earlier, a committee led by Home Secretary N. N. Vohra had submitted a report on the criminalisation of politics in October 1993. It is thus clear that at least since early 1990’s the issue of a criminal taint to politics has been of great concern to everyone. And yet the share of those with criminal backgrounds keeps rising. This is a phenomenon seen in Parliament as well as the State legislatures. There is no use saying that the people keep electing those with criminal backgrounds, so what can we do. Last month a gangster turned politician and his brother were shot dead by vigilantes while in police custody, and before television cameras that recorded the killings. That was wrong. Extra judicial killings and vigilantism need to be condemned. But it is also a matter of concern that the person was a member of parliament once and had been elected to the UP assembly a total of five times.

The problem of cleansing politics has a supply side and a demand side. The latter aspect means that voters need to choose clean candidates. Demand for tainted politicians should decrease. Voters should reject firmly anyone with a criminal background. However, there is also a supply problem. Voters often don’t have any “clean” choices on the ballot list. What if all the candidates contesting from a constituency are tainted? Here comes the supply side solution. We need to put a bar on criminal candidates from contesting elections. The right to contest is not a fundamental right as per the constitution. And if the concern is that the cases against them are false cases, then their names should be cleared by the courts. Politicians complain about the politics of vendetta, where ruling parties slap false cases against opposition members. The Justice Shah committee has specified safeguards against such a possibility in their reform recommendations of 2014. It is time that voters must insist that the mere disclosure of criminal cases is not enough. We need to move from disclosure to disqualification. The disclosure (via self-sworn affidavits) law came in 2003 More than twenty years have passed but the share of criminal elements is rising relentlessly. It is time we passed a strict law, as per the recommendation of the Law Commission’s report of 2014, to debar criminal candidates from contesting. There are other electoral reforms needed too, relating to transparency in political financing, in engendering inner party democracy and also subjecting political parties to the Right to Information law. But surely the most urgent need is to bar, at least those with serious criminal cases against them, from getting a ticket. Surely a nation of 1.3 billion can find a few thousand clean and non-criminal legislators.


The article was originally published in The Free Press Journal.