Former Solicitor General Gopal Subramanian has been in the forefront of the campaign against the criminalisation of politics. In an interview with Varghese K George, he explains how arguments against the immediate disqualification of convicted MPs and MLAs are weak.
You think members of legislatures must be instantly disqualified on conviction?
Yes. The first point is that the disqualification of MPs and MLAs under certain conditions is a constitutional prescription and once such a prescription is triggered, it cannot be kept in abeyance. The second point is that a conviction by any court of law must be sufficient grounds for disqualification. Once someone is convicted, unless that conviction is set aside, he should keep out of public life.
The second point is more political than constitutional.
Yes. It is a highly desirable objective to keep criminals out of politics. If you look at the statistics, an extraordinarily large number of candidates in elections have criminal records. We’re not talking about 10% or 20% here.
The main opposition to instant disqualification is based on two arguments: What if political opponents forge cases, and what if a higher court reverses the conviction?
We are talking about a final conviction by a court of law, after proper application of judicial mind. We are not talking about FIRs, charge-sheets or even cognisance. If even one stage of the judicial process has found a person guilty of the charges specified under the disqualification law, he should be kept away from public life. Let other people who do not have such a record take that space.
But the presumption must be ‘innocent until proven guilty’. If a person is dismissed from office only to be later cleared of those charges, is that not injustice to him?
It cannot be argued that one is considered guilty only after one has exhausted all appeals. If a convict goes all the way to the SC with appeals, that could take any number of years. Moreover, how can this protection — that a first conviction will not be considered for the purpose of defining your eligibility as a member of the legislature — be given to lawmakers by themselves?
We must also remember that the conditions of eligibility prescribed under the law are minimum qualifications. If you look at constitutional assembly debates, there is an implicit assumption that those who are elected must be capable of serving the constitution. Therefore it is absolutely necessary for our democratic and constitutional scheme of things that once a judicial process has found a person guilty after reviewing the evidence, he must be kept away from politics.