There is no doubt that democracy in India stands on the pillar of elections which allow people to choose their representatives. Nearly 50% of the MPs in the current Lok Sabha face criminal charges. The chance of winning for a candidate with a clean background is 4.7% whereas for their criminal charges accused counterparts are 15.7%.
With such startling state of affairs in the democratic temple of our country, The Supreme Court has recently asked the same parliament to take measures to curb criminalization in politics. As hopes of any changes in near future are deteriorating, here is a overview of decriminalization in Indian politics and how far we have reached:
Criminalization of politics
Oxford Dictionary defines crime as an act punishable by law as forbidden by statute or injurious to the public welfare. Criminalization in politics not only refers to acts of crime being conducted to fight elections, like use of black money but also includes participation of criminals in the electoral process as candidates and them being elected to act as representatives.
This also includes use of political power for criminal gains due to a nexus between criminals and political representatives or criminals becoming political representatives. The criminals require the politician’s aid to continue their activities whereas the politicians need criminals for money and muscle power. This has become a widespread problem in Indian democracy with not only the center but also state legislatures having about 31% members with criminal charges against them.
India follows the principal of “innocent until proven guilty”. With the judicial system taking on an average 15 years to decide on criminal cases, accused candidates continue contesting elections. Further, over the years, the rate of conviction has reduced. Many criminals are going scot-free as it has become difficult to prove their crime “beyond reasonable doubt.”
The people of India, research shows, have showed little hesitation in electing a accused candidate as politics in India is plagued by caste and region based voting. Further, even after efforts by the Election commission and media, people are often unaware and do not care enough to find the criminal antecedents of their candidate.
Money and Muscle power have become a requirement to fight elections in India. Politicians thrive on muscle power provided by criminals and huge money is generated by illegal activities to fund elections. Ethics and morals are not considered important by political parties.
Criminalization of politics is seen and experienced all over the world. What makes India stand out is: a) the scale of the issue and b) the complete blurring of the line between the “politician” and the “criminal.” Over the years, the cost of fighting elections has increased leading to political parties moving more and more towards dishonest businessmen for funds.
Further, when such political parties come to power, they make policies favouring such businessmen against the welfare of general public. Such nepotism, corruption and favouritism only increase as criminals in the political arenas increase.
This leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the institutions in the country and erodes the trust in the democratic system.
Honest and sincere candidates miss out on the opportunity to serve the country. This will not only discourage more youth from entering the field of politics but also rob the country of the polices, plans and ideas they could have bought in for the development of the country.
One of the other consequences is that law-breakers getting elected as law-makers and heading institutions to protect law. This puts the basic facets of democracy under threat and set a bad precedent for youth of the nation. Supreme Court has called criminalization of politics “fatal” to democracy.
Criminals entering politics obstruct the process of law and further shield themselves and their associates from justice. A large amount of money flows into the illegal world during elections which encourages more criminal activities.
Now that we have seen the hazardous impact of criminalization on democracy in general and the development of India in particular, it is time to understand what decriminalization means. Decriminalization refers to the various steps, policies and restrictions imposed in India to curb the entry of criminals into politics.
Though the impact of these measures is debatable, various benches of the SC, the EC, the law Commission and the legislature have all taken steps in this regard. Media has also played an important role in decriminalization of politics.
Here is an overview of the policies and decisions implemented by various bodies which have led to us moving closer to decriminalization of politics:
The EC has put into place and enforced a model Code of Conduct on the candidates which regulates them and keeps a check on campaigning activities.
The Candidates are required to voluntarily disclose criminal antecedents in their affidavit by the EC in order to inform the public of their criminal background and cases against them.
The EC also requires candidates to voluntarily disclose assets of themselves and their family members. This provides the ability to judge the honesty of the candidates to the voters. Further the Expense Monitoring Cell regulates the money spent on elections by the candidates and scrutinise their means from which they obtain this money.
The Election Commission has provided the option of None Of The Above (NOTA) to voters. This is meant to prove to the political parties that voters have the choice of not electing a criminal to power, specifically because all political parties are accused of fielding criminals.
The EC has demanded more independence and autonomy in financial decisions from the government to bring in more measures for decriminalization of politics. It also recommends laws the union government can bring in on this regard. For example, the Proposed Electoral Reforms (2016) talks about debarring politicians charged for serious offences if cases are fled 6 months before the election.
The Supreme Court in Lilly Thomas Vs Union of India declared that convicts will be immediately disqualified from the house instead giving 3 months to appeal.
SC accepted the law commission recommendation and directed courts to conclude cases related to lawmakers within a year of filing the charge sheet.
The SC also prohibited those in jail from contesting in elections and also directed the EC to regulate election freebies under code of conduct.
The SC also directed the EC to bring in NOTA and upheld the rights of citizens to make informed choices and made it mandatory to disclose criminal, educational and financial details of candidates compulsory. It further asked this information to be present in bold block letters
The SC recently refused to direct disqualification of candidates who have framed charges by the court on heinous crimes filed at least 6 months before elections. This was seen as a let down by many but the SC said it cannot act as the parliament and suggested to the parliament to make laws in this regard.
The Rule Book
The Constitution does not make specific provisions to counter criminalization of politics but Article 84 states conditions for qualifications and Article 102 encompasses conditions for disqualifications, including holding a office of profit under the government. The corresponding provisions for state legislatures are in the form of Article 173 and 191.
Chapter IX A of Indian Penal Code deals with offences relating to elections. It comprises of nine sections. It defines and provides punishment for offences, such as bribery, undue influence and personating at elections.
The Parliament through the Representation of People’s Act 1951, suggests further measures for qualifications and disqualifications. Section 8 of the Act disqualifies a member convicted for an offence and bars him/her from contesting elections for further 6 years. The Act also disqualifies a member if corrupt/ illegal practices are proved
Political parties are expected to file tax returns in the way of filing for Income Tax in order to get tax exempt and also encourage transparency
In the Finance Bill of 2017 the center lowered the maximum limit of donations for political parties from 20000 to 2000 per person and encouraged digital transfers. The center further created 12 fast track courts for handling the cases on the MPs and MLAs to ensure speedy justice.
Role of Media
Media has often been called as the fourth pillar of democracy. In its true sense, media has played a significant role in the process of decriminalization of politics. Media houses have previously conducted string operations and exposed corrupt practices of politician.
The EC depends on the media to educate the public on educational, financial and criminal antecedents of candidates. By supporting studies and publishing results on the extent of criminalization in Indian politics, not only does media attract attention of the general public on the issue but it also succeeds in pressurising the government to take actions on the same.
Often, media houses have been accused of being “sold out” to politicians. But, it is only due to consistent efforts of media and its various counterparts that ordinary citizens are able to voice their concerns on criminalization of politics.
The wait for decriminalization of politics today, looks longer than ever. Even after combined efforts from various constitutional bodies, the measures taken have been barely effective. Various commissions have been set up but the recommendations are not put into action. The stakeholders who have the authority to stop this are the ones who are part of the problem.
The Election Commission, itself appointed by the government has limited powers. The judiciary has time and again refused to take concrete action but only directed the legislature to make policies. The lawmakers in the legislature themselves come from political parties which have been the reason for the problem to exist in the first place. Expecting any action from them is useless. Thus, this issue is stuck in a tunnel without a end and no light is in sight.
The Way Ahead
State funding of elections was proposed way back by Indrajit Gupta committee in 1998 and subsequently endorsed by other committees as well. If implemented with well-thought restrictions, this can not only invite honest citizens into politics but also act as a deterrent for political parties to engage in illegal activities to fund elections.
Anti-defection laws of the country must be strengthened to reduce corruption and horse-trading. This will improve the ethical standing of political representatives
Using The Right To Information (RTI) Act efficiently has un-earthen various scams and exposed criminals in the political world. Hence, it should be extended to include political parties in its scope. For any changes to occur, political will and efficient legal framework is the need of the hour. Without efforts from all ends and demands from citizens, India will remain in this dark tunnel for a very long time.