The names have begun trickling in and speculation is rife. The BJP has announced that former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, forced to step down after an indictment by the state lokayukta in a graft case, is its candidate from Shimoga. ‘Cruel joke’, responds the Congress but has no explanation for fielding Pawan Kumar Bansal (railway posts-for-cash) and Subodh Kant Sahay (coal block allocation) or even whether it will eventually axe Suresh Kalmadi (CWG) and Ashok Chavan (Adarsh).
Like the BJP, the Congress spokespeople take refuge in the argument: No conviction, yet. Like the Congress, the BJP says due process must be allowed and candidates are innocent until proven guilty.
Of course, a charge is not a conviction. But the inordinate delay in pronouncing judgments ensures that tainted netas continue in power. To get some perspective, it took 17 years for long-time Congress ally Lalu Prasad to be convicted of embezzlement. Sentenced to five years in jail, he is out on bail, organising tickets for his wife and daughter and containing dissidence as his right-hand man flounces off to join the BJP.
It took six years to convict former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala and his son Ajay for a teacher recruitment scam. Their 10-year jail sentence is expected to generate a ‘sympathy’ wave for their INLD party that holds 31 of the state’s 90 assembly seats. No surprise that the BJP is reported to be mulling over an alliance.
The Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) says 1,460 MPs and MLAs face criminal charges. An analysis of the 15th Lok Sabha finds that 80% of the Shiv Sena’s 10 MPs, 41.07% of the BJP’s 112 and 23.88% of the Congress’ 201 face criminal charges.
The Supreme Court order that trials of accused legislators must be completed within a year of the charges being framed is part of the court’s ongoing narrative in doing what political parties have been so loath to do: Booting criminals out of politics. Last year the court ruled that legislators who had been sentenced to over two years in jail stood disqualified for six years after the completion of the sentence.
Publicly, both Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi say they want to cleanse the system. But in the dust and heat of electoral politics, tickets go to ‘winnable’ candidates and the talk simply evaporates in a haze of rhetoric.
Why do parties persist in rewarding tainted legislators? First, as explained by ADR, electoral victories are often dependent on who has the most muscle and money. Criminals frequently deliver on both.
Second, with caste often a determining factor in voting, a Yeddyurappa can swing the Lingayat vote for the BJP and an A Raja, accused in the 2G scam, can deliver Dalit votes for the DMK.
Third, voters have forgiving memories. Even when we don’t vote on caste lines, we are blinded by individual ideologies — secular forces must defeat Modi at all costs, nationalist forces must vote for development, come what may — and therefore overlook the moral lapses of parties.
But the real tragedy is that with very few exceptions, politics no longer attracts the brightest and the cleanest. In an environment where we assume sab neta chor hain we opt for the least unattractive. Where principles are at best a relative term and politicians find ingenious ways to circumvent convictions by putting up proxies — wives, sons and daughters — we must choose amongst a clutch of crooked candidates. Certainly, AAP, bereft of the entrenched baggage of more traditional parties, holds out a degree of hope but isn’t helped by either the label of ‘anarchists’ or inner-party dissidence. Can anyone really offer a new narrative in this environment?
Last year the Supreme Court ruled that ‘none of the above’ is a valid electoral choice. Although the negative vote is symbolic since the candidate with the largest votes wins anyway, maybe it’s time to claim symbolism in a time of moral decay.
If political parties can’t or won’t take a principled stand, we the voters must.
The views expressed by the author are personal