Hari Jaisingh
Opinion

How to tackle criminalization of politics

Hasn’t the Supreme Court failed the people by leaving the crucial matter of “infusing purity in politics” by barring politicians facing criminal charges from contesting elections before they are convicted? It all depends on how you look at critical issues of our democracy.

It may be somewhat legally unfair or misplaced to bar “potential lawmakers” from contesting polls before they are convicted by the due process of law. However, the necessary legal correctives can be easily found in this regard by constituting time-bound fast-track special courts since justice has not only to be done but also seen to be done.

My concern is: where are “conscience-keepers” in the country’s political arena today? I expect the judiciary to find out a “constitutional remedy” since the country’s law-makers today are a mixed lot with crorepatis and crimanalpatis, considering that 35 per cent to 45 per cent of them have criminal records or face charges.

Nothing of the sort has been suggested by the five-member Constitution bench of the apex court on this count. Instead, the Hon’ble Court has said that the “self-publicity would help curb criminalization of politics” and thereby left the matter to Parliament to “urgently enact” a law to prevent tainted criminals from becoming lawmakers.

Regrettably, I do not find much substance in the observations of the country’s highest court. It is nowhere near the ground reality. In this context, we all know how our Parliament has been conducting itself for decades.

Presently, those politicians convicted of heinous crimes like murder, rape and kidnapping are barred from contesting elections. But, my point is: why not ensure cleaner electoral politics by barring those with criminal charges from contesting elections?

There are, of course, views and counter-views in this matter on the presumption that such persons are “innocent” until they are proven guilty”. I am not questioning this proposition. All the same, we cannot ignore harsh realities on the ground and power games openly played by all political parties and their leaders. This scenario is highly disquieting, to say the least.

Interestingly, the apex court was told by the Centre in March this year that as many as 1,765 “people’s representatives” in Parliament and legislatures in the country face criminal charges. This works out to be a little over a third of all representatives in India. This is surely not a happy situation for healthy growth of democracy.

The moot question is: What is being done promptly and effectively in nip the ‘criminal-neta nexus’ in the bud? Not much has been done in this regard, though last year, the Supreme Court’s two-judge bench had asked the government to set up 12 special courts across 11 states and Delhi to deal with cases related to elected representatives. I am not sure of any action in this regard since money and muscle power has been spreading its tentacles fast across the country. For that matter, even the initiative taken by the Election Commission based on an NGO’s 2011 (Public Interest Foundation), PIL, has been pending before the Ministry of Law and Justice!

I do understand the Supreme Court’s cautious approach on ‘criminal politicians’. It does not wish to cross the Lakshman rekha on the separation of powers as provided for in the Constitution. Hence, the remark by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra: “It is the duty of Parliament to keep money and muscle at bay. Parliament should cure the malignancy before it becomes fatal to democracy”. But can this be done?

Well, money and muscle power has almost become fatal to the working of our democratic polity. No one has the right answer as to how the ‘criminal-neta’ nexus has to be broken.

I, however, appreciate honest appraisal of the problem of the “criminal-net nexus” by the apex court. It recalled Mumbai’s serial blasts of 1993 which exposed how the “termite to the citadel of democracy” was being destroyed. It recalled the findings of the famous N.N. Vohra Committee report of October 5, 1993, which also contained inputs from the CBI, IB and RAW.

The Vohra Committee had clearly expressed grave concern that “all over the years, several criminals had been elected to local bodies, state assemblies and Parliament”. I am sorry to say that the Vohra Committee report has been gathering dust in the corridors of power while governments have come and gone at the Centre and in the states. Who cares?

In 2014 the Law Commission, on the direction of the SC, studied the problem of criminalisation of politics. It submitted its report in 2014, saying between 2004 and 2014, as many as 18 per cent of candidates contesting national or state elections had criminal cases against them and half of them faced serious charges of murder, attempt to murder, rape and corruption as well as charges under MCOCA.

The Supreme Court’s dilemma on the criminalization of politics and half-hearted steps taken to prevent it is understandable. In a way, it is a matter of finding a decent constitutional way out of the problem. But curiously enough, while ordering candidates to advertise in the media about their criminal antecedents, it has refrained from crossing the ‘Lakshman rekha’ of the legislative arena!

Apparently, the Supreme Court has played safe but, in the process has overlooked the larger issue of ordinary voters’ psyche on the growing signs of criminalization of the polity. With the poverty and literacy level being what it is, most of the average people hardly understand where criminality begins and where it ends. Not that Indian voters lack common sense. They have enough of it. But their problem is the vitiated criminalized atmosphere in which they struggle to survive because of bullying tactics of their local “netas” who send “shivers down” their “spine”.

It must be said to the fairness of the apex court that Chief Justice Dipak Misra said, “we share your concern. We will think of a constitutional remedy ….Parliament has an obligation under Article 102(1)(E) to make a law. As conscience-keepers of the Constitution, we (Supreme Court) can ask you (Parliament) to do it”.javascript:void(0)

My concern is: where are “conscience-keepers” in the country’s political arena today? I expect the judiciary to find out a “constitutional remedy” since the country’s law-makers today are a mixed lot with crorepatis and crimanalpatis, considering that 35 per cent to 45 per cent of them have criminal records or face charges.

Looking beyond, our democracy has to go all the way down and must attempt to build transparency and accountability in the system. We can’t settle for what Owens called as “false democracy”.

Socrates said: “To know yourself is the beginning of wisdom”. It is time we understood ourselves as individuals and as a nation. Then alone we shall have the wisdom to understand the ground realities and the pangs of sufferings of the have-nots and harassed resourceless litigants. We also must achieve the necessary will to remove the ills afflicting the nation at all levels of our democracy. Here Aristotle’s words in his famous treatise on “Politics” are worth recalling, “….To live by the rule of the constitution ought not to be regarded as slavery but rather as salvation”. Over to the Supreme Court, now headed by Hon’ble Justice Ranjan Gogoi.