We can be justifiably proud of our Election Commission (ECI) and its conduct of elections. Elections are held on time, every time and the transition of power is invariably smooth, unlike in many other countries. Yet if a fault line that has developed over the last three decades that is even more worrying than the blatant misuse of “money” power, it is the growing number of parliamentarians and legislators with criminal antecedents. The present Lok Sabha has approximately 30 % of its members with one or multiple cases registered against them. Almost half are for offences such as murder, attempt to murder, rape, dacoity and kidnapping. That so many of our law makers should be law breakers is a sad reality. Our intelligentsia has come to accept this in resigned silence. Sadly,so have “we the people.”
This growing phenomenon has had its own chequered history. In the late 70s and early 80s, many contestants began to rely on local mafiosos to ensure votes for them. Intimidation and threats were common. Goons simply stormed into the polling stations, threatened the staff with dire consequences, “captured” the ballot boxes and stuffed them with their nominee markings. In due course, these local warlords came to realise that helping others to win was not the solution for their problems and began to offer themselves as candidates. Astonishingly, many were welcomed into the political fold because they carried the halo of “winnability”.
Power and criminality now began to feed one upon the other with the result that criminality within political ranks, instead of lessening for any fear of “name and shame”, actually increased its appeal. While the ECI has been successful in outlawing many of these blatant excesses, it is still worrying that some studies have shown that when ‘muscle’ is combined with ‘money’ power, the chances of winning increase dramatically. Some analyses have revealed that candidates with criminal records have a 23% chance of winning, as compared to a 12% chance for “clean” candidates.
When I was the chief election commissioner, I ran into the leader of a major political party at an airport lounge. I asked him why his political party nominated criminals. I pointed to a legislator with several criminal cases pending of which at least 10 were for the most heinous offences. Another had over 20 cases, most of them for the most heinous offences. Was there a solution to this problem? He replied frankly, “When elections are on the horizon, our only ‘mantra’ is ‘winnability”.
What I continue to find surprising is that even those political leaders who have publicly spoken against giving party tickets to those with criminal backgrounds are nonetheless strangely silent in the face of this growing malaise. After all, what can be stranger than the fact that 30% of our law makers are law breakers.
Why should voters wish to elect “criminals” instead of “clean” candidates? A likely explanation is that the widespread mistrust of politicians leads the voter to trust a criminal with party, caste, religion, region or ethnicity also being contributing factors. Many also perceive the institutions of state to have broken down (or outside their reach), when it comes to the settlement of their problems on issues relating to land, irrigation, power, justice and problems within the social structure.
In 2006, the government’s response was to set up a standing committee of Parliament to examine the EC’s suggestions. In its report dated February 27, 2007, it concluded that debarment of those charged with heinous offences, instead of a panacea, could instead become an instrument of misuse by political parties in power, seeking vendetta against their rivals. The committee unanimously turned down the ECI’s proposal and instead offered the solution of special courts and day-to-day trials. No such mechanism is in sight. The conclusion is inescapable. “Winnability” continues to prevail.
The role of the Supreme Court cannot be overemphasised. In 2002 and 2003, the Supreme Court made it compulsory for all candidates to file information regarding any and all criminal cases pending against them. (In addition, declarations of their wealth and their educational qualifications were also mandated). With this information, the apex court hoped that voters could make informed choices about whom to vote for. With their order, the details of criminal cases filed against aspiring politicians came into the open.
By another significant order (July 10, 2013, Lili Thomas vs Union of India) they ended the unfair privilege accorded only to MPs/MLAs, which enabled them to retain their memberships even upon conviction, by simply by filing an appeal within three months. By overturning this privilege, Lalu Prasad was unable to appeal his conviction and was sent to jail and debarred from contesting for six years.
Inspite of these hard-hitting pronouncements, the despair felt by the Election Commission was reflected by no less than the former chairman of the Law Commission, Justice AP Shah in his 2014 report to the government (and his public utterances thereafter), making his disappointment manifest. He recorded that the entry of criminals into politics has subverted the judicial process. He echoed the ECI’s recommendations that persons against whom criminal charges have been framed and which are punishable by more than five years of imprisonment, should be disqualified for a period of six years. To buttress his argument, he pointed to their abysmally low conviction rate of 0.5%. In a newspaper interview on April 19, 2014, he was quoted as saying “The right to be elected is not a fundamental right.”
Sadly, these recommendations, too, have so far met with deafening silence from the government and Parliament.
Navin B Chawla is a former chief election commissioner of IndiaThe views expressed are personal