Criminalization of Politics means that the criminals entering the politics and contesting elections and even getting elected to the Parliament and state legislature. Criminalization of politics is the focus of public debate when discussion on electoral reforms takes place.
A February 2020 Supreme Court judgement on Criminalization in politics may have far-reaching consequences for Indian democracy. The judgment was passed in a contempt of court case filed against the Chief Election Commissioner of India. The petition claimed the ECI had failed to take any steps to ensure the implementation of a 2018 judgment of the bench, which had made it mandatory for political parties to declare and publish all criminal cases pending against their candidates.
Reasons why criminalization of politics still exists in India:
- In every election political parties put up candidates with a criminal background.
- Evident link between criminality and the probability of winning is further reinforced when winnability of a candidate is looked into. A candidate facing criminal charges is twice as likely to win as a clean candidate.
- The political parties and independent candidates have astronomical expenditure for vote buying and other illegitimate purposes through these criminals.
Denial of Justice and Rule of Law:
- Toothless laws against convicted criminals standing for elections further encourage this process. Under current law, only people who have been convicted at least on two counts be debarred from becoming candidates. This leaves the field open for charge sheeted criminals, many of whom are habitual offenders or history-sheeters.
- Constitution does not specify what disqualifies an individual from contesting in an election to a legislature.
- It is the Representation of People Act which specifies what can disqualify an individual from contesting an election. The law does not bar individuals who have criminal cases pending against them from contesting elections
Lack of governance:
- The root of the problem lies in the country’s poor governance capacity.
Scarcity of state capacity:
- The scarcity of state capacity is the reason for the public preferring ‘strongmen’ who can employ the required pulls and triggers to get things done.
- Criminality, far from deterring voters, encourages them because it signals that the candidate is capable of fulfilling his promises and securing the interests of the constituency.
- No political party is free of this problem.The use of muscle power along with money power is a weapon used by all political parties to maximize electoral gains.
- With cases dragging in courts for years, a disqualification based on conviction becomes ineffective. Low conviction rates in such cases compounds the problem; voters don’t mind electing candidates facing criminal cases.
- Voter behavior then emboldens political parties to give tickets to such candidates who can win an election on their ticket etc.
Landmark judgments pertaining to criminalization of Politics:
- The Supreme Court has taken a timely decision by agreeing to hear a plea from the Election Commission of India (ECI) to direct political parties to not field candidates with criminal antecedents
- The immediate provocation is the finding that 46% of Members of Parliament have criminal records.
- While the number might be inflated as many politicians tend to be charged with relatively minor offences — “unlawful assembly” and “defamation” — the real worry is that the current cohort of Lok Sabha MPs has the highest (29%) proportion of those with serious declared criminal cases compared to its recent predecessors.
- The Supreme Court has come up with a series of landmark judgments on addressing this issue.
- It removed the statutory protection of convicted legislators from immediate disqualification in 2013, and in 2014, directed the completion of trials involving elected representatives within a year.
- In 2017, it asked the Centre to frame a scheme to appoint special courts to exclusively try cases against politicians, and for political parties to publicize pending criminal cases faced by their candidates in 2018.
- But these have not been a deterrent to legislators with dubious credentials. Perhaps what would do the trick is a rule that disallows candidates against whom charges have been framed in court for serious offences, but this is something for Parliament to consider as an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
- This denouement, however, is still a pie in the sky given the composition of the Lower House with a number of representatives facing serious cases.
RPA Criminalization of politics:
- Currently, under the Representation of Peoples (RP) Act, lawmakers cannot contest elections only after their conviction in a criminal case.
- Section 8 of the Representation of the People (RP) Act, 1951disqualifies a person convicted with a sentence of two years or more from contesting elections. But those under trial continued to be eligible to contest elections. The Lily Thomas case (2013), however, ended this unfair advantage.
- Election Commission has limited powers to legislate on such laws.
- Public opinion too is not firm on the issue.
- A survey found that opinion was divided when people were asked whether they would vote for an honest candidate who may not get their work done, or a tainted candidate who could get their work done.
- While political parties raise concern about candidates with a tainted background contesting elections, none of them come forward to set an example for others when it is time to act.
- In the present criminal justice system, it takes years, probably decades, to complete the trial against a politician.
- Those with political influence have taken full advantage by delaying hearings, obtaining repeated adjournments and filing innumerable interlocutory petitions to stall any progress.
- They also engage in corruption and infect the bureaucracy and the police.
- Law panel report bats for using the time of the framing of charges to initiate disqualification as an appropriate measure to curb the criminalization of politics.
- Political parties should themselves refuse tickets to the tainted.
- The RPA Act should be amended to debar persons against whom cases of a heinous nature are pending from contesting elections.
- Bringing greater transparency in campaign financing is going to make it less attractive for political parties to involve gangsters
- The Election Commission of India (ECI) should have the power to audit the financial accounts of political parties, or political parties’ finances should be brought under the right to information (RTI) law
- Broader governance will have to improve for voters to reduce the reliance on criminal politicians.
- Fast-track courts are necessary because politicians are able to delay the judicial process and serve for decades before prosecution.
- The Election Commission must take adequate measures to break the nexus between the criminals and the politicians.
- The forms prescribed by the Election Commission for candidates disclosing their convictions, cases pending in courts and so on in their nomination papers is a step in the right direction if it applied properly.
- Addressing the entire value chain of the electoral system will be the key to solving the puzzle of minimizing criminal elements from getting elected to our legislatures. This process would involve sensitizing the electorate about the role and responsibility of the elected representatives.
- Political parties will have to be encouraged to have stronger inner party democracy to attract this new set of leaders to join the party. And finally, our judicial system will have to be overhauled drastically to ensure that justice is dispensed swiftly in all cases.