- Tainted & dented
July 13, 2013
Politicians are in a tizzy over the SC ruling that jailbirds cannot fight elections, and convicted MPs and MLAs can be disqualified
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Tainted & dented
The SC judgments saying politicians cannot fight elections from inside prison, and that MPs and MLAs will be disqualified from office if convicted of a crime means many of them could be left jobless. No wonder it's sent netas into a tizzy.
In this Parliament, 162 members have cases of heinous offences against them. In this Parliament, rapists are sitting, murderers and looters are sitting, " Aam Aadmi Party's Arvind Kejriwal had thundered at the height of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption stir. Last week, the Supreme Court took the first steps to address Kejriwal's charge that criminals have debased the temple of Indian democracy. First, it struck down Section 8 (4) of the Representation of the People Act which allows MPs and MLAs to continue as elected lawmakers, even after being convicted in a criminal case, as long as they have an appeal pending in a higher court of law. The next day, it ruled that imprisoned politicians cannot contest elections.
This means, for instance, that if convicted in the 17-year old fodder scam case, RJD chief Lalu Yadav would be immediately disqualified from Parliament. So would DMK MPs Kanimozhi and A Raja, who are on trial in cases related to the 2G telecom scandal. Ditto for Congress MP Suresh Kalmadi, accused of irregularities in awarding contracts for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, charged in a disproportionate assets case. These are just the high-profile politicians. Going by Kejriwal's figures, the current Parliament would lose 162 MPs, almost onefifth of its membership in one stroke if they are convicted today. And according to statistics compiled by the Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch, a whopping 31 per cent of MLAs around the country could eventually be turfed out.
Both were landmark rulings with huge implications for political parties across the spectrum. The effect could be immediate. Four crucial state assembly elections are coming up this winter and the biggest one of all - the 2014 Lok Sabha polls - is less than a year away. The Supreme Court judgment has made it virtually impossible for parties to field candidates facing a criminal trial, unless they are convinced of their innocence or are willing to risk their disqualification if proved guilty.
"It will certainly act as a strong deterrent forn political parties, " said ADR's Anil Bairwal. "There was no fear in them so far but now they will have to think carefully before giving tickets to those who have been convicted or are facing criminal charges. "
The judgments have undoubtedly rattled politicians. Most parties either refrained from reacting to or responded cautiously. "It's an important step towards cleansing the system, " was all that BJP leader Arun Jaitley was willing to say. CPI(M) leader Nilotpal Basu said simply, "We are studying the judgments. " But privately, many seethed with anger at what they saw as yet another example of judicial overreach.
For the first time, there was a real threat to the cosy little scene legislators had worked out for themselves with the inclusion of Section 8(4) in the RPA. All these years, the section allowed them to brazenly circumvent electoral laws, if not in letter then certainly in spirit, and hold on to their positions despite convictions, sometimes for grave offences. The abuse of the provision climaxed in an unedifying spectacle during the controversial 2008 trust vote in Parliament, forced on Manmohan Singh's UPA-I government when the Left Parties withdrew support over the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. The numbers were so tight and so keenly contested that the government hauled three MPs - Pappu Yadav, Mohd Shahbuddin and Suraj Bhan Singh - out of jail and had them brought to the Lok Sabha under police escort to vote for the UPA. Yadav and Shahbuddin were RJD MPs and Singh was from the LJP. All three were serving life sentences for various crimes including murder. They are still in jail but on that fateful day, they were briefly let out to save a tottering government.
It is a sad day for democracy when an elected government has to survive with the help of jailbirds. And this is precisely what the Supreme Court hopes will never be repeated again. The question is: will the rulings really clean things up? Can they stop criminalisation of politics which has become almost rampant now? Or will they lead to another round of confrontation between the judiciary and the political class?
Several MPs privately criticised the judgments as "bad in law". One of them pointed out that elected representatives will be at a disadvantage now. For instance, if an MP or MLA is disqualified after a conviction by a trial court, he could lose his seat forever even if he is proved innocent later by a higher court. By way of comparison, a government employee is sacked on conviction but reinstated after he is acquitted on appeal. An elected representative cannot reclaim his seat once it has gone to someone else in a byelection. An innocent man's political career could be destroyed, the MP pointed out.
This is a particularly worrisome thought for most politicians because often criminal cases are politically motivated. Law and order is a state subject and ruling dispensations tend to slap charges charges against their political rivals quite indiscriminately, as we have seen in states like UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu where political rivalries are often intense, bitter and personal.
Activists like AAP's Prashant Bhushan, however, disagreed with the mainstream political view. "It's not such a big deal if a few innocent people get disqualified. It's a far bigger problem if the guilty get elected and stay elected, " he insisted. Bhushan added that the ruling is only a start in the effort to decriminalise politics. "We need fundamental judicial reforms so that cases are speeded up and not subverted. The judicial process must be transparent and credible, " he said.
The battle has only just begun. Realising that elections are around the corner and that the SC rulings have tremendous traction with a middle class whose mood is increasingly turning anti-politician, the political class is silent for the moment. But there is simmering resentment. One MP warned darkly of an impending backlash once the elections are out of the way. The next Lok Sabha could well take up the cudgels on behalf of the entire political establishment and overturn the SC orders. Who said it was going to be easy to clean up the system!
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