A stain on our democracy

Unless we disqualify criminal candidates from standing for elections, our legislatures will keep getting more and more tainted

The Supreme Court this week came down heavily on criminalisation of politics. It asked political parties to explain why they need to give tickets to people with criminal backgrounds. The court also asked them to publicise widely, through websites and social media, the impressive “résumé” of these criminal elements. Let the voters know. The judges also asked whether winnability alone counts in ticket giving, and should parties not be doing something to clean the polity. The latest order is actually a reiteration of a similar one passed in 2018, asking parties to give wide publicity to criminally tainted candidates through newspapers. Alas, the top court stopped short of disqualifying tainted candidates. There is no law in the land that prevents criminally charged persons from standing for elections. In the absence of such a law, which seems unlikely to be passed by Parliament, the court could step in, and put a disqualification criteria.

The right to stand for elections is not a fundamental right. So if we put some restriction on who can and cannot stand, it is not like we are suppressing their freedom of speech or right to livelihood. All we have is a 1951law on who is qualified to stand for elections to Parliament and assemblies. That law states a minimum age requirement, and that you must not be convicted of certain crimes (typically those that attract minimum two years of jail). But since our judicial system works slowly, and a conviction in a lower court can be appealed in a higher court, and the process can continue ad infinitum, technically you are innocent until proven guilty by the highest authority. So this law is not able to prevent any criminally tainted person from standing for elections. The unfortunate trend is that in the past two decades the number of criminally tainted elected lawmakers has increased. In 2004, 24 per cent of MPs had pending criminal cases. This went up to 30 per cent in 2009, to 34 in 2014 and is now a whopping 43 per cent in the current Lok Sabha. The upward trend is seen in many assemblies as well. The stats are dismal and depressing.

But there is a predictable howl from politicians. They say most of these cases are frivolous or false charges. And that the ruling party often resorts to filing cases against leaders of the opposition. And the cycle continues with tit for tat. It is as if we have widespread practice of the politics of vendetta. If that is so, then it is the parties themselves that can put a stop to it. Moreover, if indeed a person is innocent and reeling under false charges, then he or she can clear their name in the court of law, get acquitted and then stand for election. Just wait till your name gets cleared. Maybe institute a fast track court for such cases. Surely a nation of more than a billion people should be able to find a few thousand clean, untainted candidates? But there seems to be no progress on this front, as criminalisation just keeps getting worse. In fact in nearly 40 per cent of the constituencies, there are three or more tainted candidates. So voters have no choice but to vote for a criminal candidate. That’s why we need an activist Supreme Court that can introduce a disqualification clause. At least those charged with heinous crimes such as murder, rape, kidnap and dacoity should be prohibited. Some states like Rajasthan tried to disqualify candidates who did not have some minimum education. This was for municipal and panchayat elections. Some states already disqualify you for a sarpanch post if you have more than two kids. These conditions are much more anti-democratic than disqualifying on the basis of criminal record.

While we wait for voters to reject criminally tainted candidates (i.e. the demand side pressure), let us also pass laws to disqualify at least those who have very serious charges against them (i.e. supply side pressure). Only then can we make progress on cleansing politics. Otherwise, our record will keep getting murky (the latest Delhi state election outcome is no exception), and our standing as a robust and vibrant democracy will keep getting embarrassing.

The article was originally published on Mumbai Mirror.