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HindustanTimes Fri,19 Dec 2014
Their badge of dishonour
Chanakya, Hindustan Times
July 21, 2013
First Published: 00:35 IST(21/7/2013)
Last Updated: 03:53 IST(21/7/2013)

We have all grown up hearing this — crime doesn’t pay. While this may have been enough for you and me to keep our noses clean, it would seem that many of our netas believe in exactly the opposite. But then some of them seem to be made of sterner stuff than your average Joe.

If an ordinary person were to be accused, mind you, not convicted but just accused of a heinous crime, he or she would be cowering within four walls ashamed to face the world. But a Raja Bhaiya in Uttar Pradesh takes pride in swanning around, wearing his alleged criminality almost as a badge of honour. He is one among many of our politicians who almost seem to require a criminal record to feel that they are relevant.

Which is why the Supreme Court has had to step in and rule that a person once convicted cannot hang onto his seat in the legislative assembly or Parliament and that those cooling their heels in jail are not eligible to contest elections.

Now political parties may feel that this is judicial overreach and perhaps it is. But, let me ask you, who is to blame for it? Not the poor voter who is faced with half of dozen of one or six of another when it comes to a choice of candidates.

A candidate with a criminal record has often been seen almost as an asset to many parties. Indeed, party bosses themselves like the redoubtable Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray often urge their workers to take the law into their own hands.

A muscle man is seen as having his uses for the party, to intimidate voters and terrorise poll officials, among other things. To come back to Raja Bhaiya, even if one were to discount tales of his Mogambo-like ponds of crocodiles, the man has publicly made threats against police officials.

Yet, a young, fresh and clean Akhilesh Yadav found that he could not do without him until the long arm of the law caught up with the swashbuckling strongman.

Is it not the ultimate irony that many of our lawmakers, those who frame the laws that govern our lives, are themselves on the wrong side of the law? It should be a source of embarrassment to us. I cannot imagine this trend of allowing criminals in politics being allowed in any other  democracy.

In Britain, ministerial heads have rolled for small discrepancies in accounts of expenses. In the US, it is unthinkable that a person with a criminal record could run for public office.

The political parties here should not have waited around twiddling their thumbs for the court to push them to clean up their act. They should have done so themselves. I really cannot see what advantage other than a few seats in the short term there is to be gained by encouraging criminals to join politics.

It should have been absolutely mandatory to select candidates without criminal records, and by this I don’t mean having been arrested for taking part in a college protest.

The prime minister, a person who has always been seen to float above the fray when it comes to being clean, has made much of meritocracy. I agree with him. If you or I were applying for a job in a corporate or an NGO or an educational institution, we would have been shown the door if we were found to have a criminal record.

And many of our political worthies have a record as long as my arm. The quaint term history-sheeter is applied to many, though they rarely turn a hair at this appalling epithet.

We often hear that the winnability factor is what makes many political parties plump for criminal candidates. But here I have to say that it is better to grasp the nettle and lose a seat than bring an undesirable character into politics.

The association with criminals erodes the faith that people have in parties and this is something that the political class can do without when confidence in it is at an all time low.

In fact, I find it amusing to hear people talking about one or the other politician being ‘clean.’ Our defence minister AK Antony is one such. But for goodness sake, you are supposed to be clean if you are in public life or private life for that matter.

It is hardly a compliment to be what you are supposed to be. But we admire these clean politicians because they are often more the exception rather than the rule.

I have heard people say that you need to be a bit crooked around the edges to survive in politics. Nonsense. You can do just as well if you tread the straight and narrow. The political class should not have had to be taken to drink at the trough of cleanliness kicking and screaming. But now that they have, I am sure you are glad of  it.

I have just one word of advice for the political parties. Implement what the court has asked not for fear of a judicial reprimand because you now have no excuse in the court of the people which most of you quote as the ultimate one in politics.


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