Crime in politics: Supreme Court alone can’t fight the menace alone
The Financial Express
The 2019 general election saw 233 candidates facing criminal cases reach Lok Sabha—that is 43% of the 539 Lok Sabha members whose election affidavits were analysed by the Association for Democratic Reforms. Of these, 159 are named in serious criminal cases including murder, rape, kidnapping, offences related to the Prevention of Corruption Act, etc. The ruling party, the BJP, has 116 Lok Sabha members who face criminal charges, with 87 of them facing serious criminal charges. The share of those facing serious criminal charges in the total number of Lok Sabha members has risen from 30% to 43% in just a decade (2009-2019); needless to say, the share of those with serious criminal cases has also risen sharply. Given the dire need to check crime in politics, the Supreme Court (SC) ordering political parties to list ‘criminal’ candidates along with details of the nature of the crime, state of probe/trial completed, etc, on their websites, social media accounts and in newspapers, within 48 hours of such candidates’ selection, is quite welcome. More important, the SC has asked parties to also publish their explanation for selecting each of these candidates, and they can’t cite mere winnability. Parties have been directed to file a compliance report with Election Commission of India (ECI).
But, the fact is that the SC has, over the past few years, made similar strikes against crime in politics—with nearly zero effect. In 2014, it had ordered that the trial of politicians be concluded within a year,but cases continue to drag for years despite fast-track courts. Indeed, the latest order comes in a contempt case filed by Ashiwini Upadhyay, a BJP spokesperson, against the ECI, for not adhering to the apex court’s order in the Public Interest Foundation vs Union of India case. The SC, in its September 2018 order in the matter, had asked political parties to publish the details of criminal cases their candidates were facing. The information furnished to the ECI also had to reflect these. However, the ECI, though it did order the mandatory disclosure of criminal background of candidates on various media, amended neither the Election Symbol Order 1968 nor the Model Code of Conduct to reflect this. Under Paragraph 16A of the 1968 Order, the Commission is empowered to suspend or withdraw recognition of a political party for failure to follow lawful directions and instructions of the Commission. Given how its order on publicising the criminal antecedents of candidates were flouted by parties, it is odd that it never acted against them.
If the SC’s latest order is able to force some degree of compliance, it could help clean parties up. But, the SC asking parties to state reasons, other than winnability, for fielding such candidates opens a new avenue for delays, since parties can always argue that the charges are politically motivated and trials can then carry on for years. Had the SC simply called for decriminalising politics over, say, five years, and rigorous monitoring by the ECI in the interim, it would have perhaps had a deeper impact. At the end of the day, it is the political class that has to be convinced that parties and criminals shouldn’t be symbionts. Else, criminal lawmakers and their godfathers in politics will keep side-stepping all efforts—evident in the manner the Karnataka government under BS Yediyurappa appointed Anand Singh, a man named in many illegal mining and forest-laws violation cases, as the its environment & forest minister!