“To reason with governments, as they have existed for ages, is to argue with brutes” – Thomas Paine, Rights of Man.
Last July, the Electoral College comprising MPs from both houses of Parliament and MLAs from the various State Legislative Assemblies in India cast their votes to elect the President of India.
However, what went unreported is that out of the 4800 odd members of the aforementioned Electoral College, a not insignificant number of worthies had declared criminal cases against their names on their pre-election affidavits. A report by Association of Democratic Reforms [ADR], highlighted this aspect, and I quote:
The public release of candidate affidavit data has confirmed many of the suspicions that the public has had about the criminalization of Indian politics. As noted by nearly everyone who pays attention, candidates who have been charged with committing a crime, even violent and serious ones, are more likely to win elections than candidates with a clean record. The startling result that nearly one in four Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha have a criminal record has sparked a research agenda devoted to explaining why voters are willing to support such candidates. Another potential research agenda concerns itself with connecting the attributes of MPs to the quality of governance at large in India.
The frequency with which alleged or convicted criminals manage to gain public office threatens the ideals and the functioning of the Indian democracy.
While I see no need to repeat the alarming sets of statistics presented in previous posts, let me simply add one additional concern to this enumeration: the problem might be getting bigger. During the 2007 election in UP, 140 of these candidates won assembly seats. During the 2012 election, 189 of these candidates won assembly seats. While some have attributed this increase to the change in winning party, this explanation appears to be inaccurate. All major parties – throughout the country - have fielded criminals and it is not impossible that we might be faced with a spiraling upward trend and an increasing reliance on criminals on the behalf of parties, especially given the exponential costs of elections in India.
The criminalization of politics is fast becoming one of the defining features of contemporary Indian democracy, with one in four Members of Parliament facing criminal charges. The situation at the state and local level, though lacking comparable scrutiny, is of a similar order: of more than 4,000 state assembly constituencies, roughly one in five is home to a sitting politician with at least one criminal case. Based on data collected by the Association for Democratic Reforms, 17% and 21% of corporators in Mumbai and Delhi, respectively, have declared criminal cases.
These facts should banish any doubt that criminality is an embedded feature of India’s post-independence democracy. In order to address this nexus, Member of Parliament Baijayant “Jay” Panda, writing in these pages, has recently introduced three Private Members’ Bills in the Lok Sabha.
To summarize, Panda’s bills would accomplish the following:
- Remove the exception that MPs, MLAs and MLCs can serve in the legislature after conviction
- Establish fast-track courts for trials under 90 days for any elected representative facing a criminal case
- Amend existing statute to empower independent and effective prosecutions.
Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, Member of Parliament, Lok Sabha
The expert comments as well as gossip about the next general elections is growing louder by the day. Political parties are re-positioning themselves to increase their likelihood of forming the government in 2014. Amidst this hullaballoo, the political class has conveniently turned a deaf ear to the calls by civil society groups to undertake critical electoral reforms such as decriminalising politics.
Several government-appointed Commissions have already made clear recommendations for reforms, but the political will to implement these recommendations in letter and spirit is lacking. At a recent conference on decriminalisation of politics, the Law Minister acknowledged the problem but chose to refer it to yet another Law Commission specially constituted for the purpose. Instead of dilly-dallying, a government that genuinely intends to bring about reform should instead be using its energies to build political consensus to tackle these issues at the earliest. The opposition, too, shares the responsibility for making this happen.