To break the nexus of crime and politics in India, we should not wait until the conviction of accused candidates. Other solutions exist.
With less than 24 hours to go for the assembly elections in the state of Karnataka, the topic of criminal backgrounds of various candidates is back in focus. A recent report by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) reveals that 391 of the 2655 candidates face criminal charges, and 254 of these face charges of a serious nature. All three major parties, namely BJP, Congress and JDS, have such candidates on their party tickets.
Of course, a criminal complaint is not proof of guilt. The Representation of the Peoples Act (RPA), 1951 states that a person cannot be debarred from contesting elections nor expelled from the parliament or legislative assembly unless s/he is convicted with a jail term of two years or more. However, there are multiple stages between filing of a criminal complaint and a court judgment that merit consideration.
After a criminal complaint is filed, usually in the form of an FIR with the police, there are at least three stages before a court of law begins the hearings. First comes the investigation conducted by the police or other competent authorities, during which they evaluate the merits of the complaints and collect evidence. Next, the investigating authority files a chargesheet with the court. Third, the court studies the chargesheet and appropriately frames charges against the accused. It is only then that the prosecution and defense lawyers begin arguing the case before a judge.
It is important to note that even before the court hearings begin, the “complaint” undergoes considerable judicial scrutiny and gathers significant weight. In fact, in 2014 the Law Commission of India (LCI) recommended that framing of charges against a person should be sufficient reason to prevent them from contesting in elections. The LCI was acting on the directives of the Supreme Court of India in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by an NGO called Public Interest Foundation in 2011.
The PIL had put forward the concerns of citizens regarding the criminalization of politics and the slow pace of judicial proceedings, which doesn’t help the situation. A report published by ADR in 2013 pegged the proportion of sitting MPs and MLAs with criminal charges at that time at 30%, and of those with serious criminal charges at 14%.
The RPA, in addition to stipulating the grounds of disqualification, states that a person cannot contest any elections for six years after the end of the jail term. In 2016, a BJP leader from Delhi contested this and filed a petition to seek disqualification of convicted persons for life. Subsequently, the Supreme Court issued an order to the Union Government to furnish the number of sitting MPs and MLAs who currently have criminal cases pending against them. In this order, the court also recommended setting up of fast track courts to expedite such criminal cases.
Although the government committed to setting up of 12 fast track courts with an allocation of Rs 7.8 crores, we do not know the current state of progress in this regard. The government has also not furnished information regarding status of cases, pending and new, lodged against current MPs and MLAs.
Furthermore, the government has so far failed to act on the recommendations of the Law Commission report of 2014 regarding modifications in criteria for debarring of contestants. Since by the stage of framing of charges, there is prima facie evidence against a person, this is the time when a dishonest politician should be debarred from contesting elections. It is imperative that India adopts LCI’s recommendations with urgency.
In March this year, the government also argued against a plea to restrain convicts from forming political parties or holding posts in them. The government held the opinion that political participation is citizens’ fundamental right and cannot be revoked owing to criminal convictions.
In less than a week, citizens and media might lament the election of several candidates with criminal charges to the Karnataka state assembly. Soon after that, the focus will shift to the General Elections. ADR might publish another report on the number of contestants with criminal records. The nexus of crime and politics continues.
In his speech to the constituent assembly on the day the Constitution was passed, Dr Rajendra Prasad said, “If the people who are elected are capable and men of character and integrity, then they would be able to make the best even of a defective constitution. If they are lacking in these, the constitution cannot help the country. After all, a constitution like a machine is a lifeless thing. It acquires life because of the men who control it and operate it, and India needs today nothing more than a set of honest men who will have the interest of the country before them.”
Even decades later, Dr Prasad’s words ring true. Now, more than ever, India needs a set of honest men and women who place the interest of the country before them.