A person who is guilty of flouting the law presiding over framing laws that affect the lives of people is a most worrying prospect. And this is what the Supreme Court seeks to rectify with its order striking down Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act that allows convicted law makers a three-month period for filing their appeal to a higher court and to get a stay of the conviction and sentence. The Bench has made it clear that the ruling is not retrospective. The Court has also ruled that MPs, MLAs and MLCs would be disqualified from the date of conviction. While the political class has welcomed this ruling, though somewhat cautiously, this is bound to go down very well with the public which has increasingly been disillusioned with the criminalisation of politics. Many may argue, and indeed many politicians and lawyers have done so, that there are various degrees of culpability.
Should a person convicted of taking part in a protest in which he or she is arrested be treated in the same manner as a person convicted of a serious crime like extortion or murder? Could this ruling be used to settle political scores by tying down an opponent by filing cases against him or her? There are many unresolved issues here which will have to be clarified in due course. In the case of disqualification of a person convicted from the seat he or she occupies, the matter has to be referred to the President in the normal course of events who consults the Election Commission before taking a decision. While it is true that this ruling may lead to several by-elections and cast into disarray electoral mathematics, the fact that a cleansing of the political system was long overdue cannot be denied. This might be a signal to political parties themselves to develop their own internal checks. While winnability is a factor, putting up a tainted candidate erodes the credibility of any party. Those who have criminal records and get party tickets are often promoted for the wrong reasons. They are thought to have muscle power and the ability to intimidate voters. These are things that any credible political party must consider anathema. There may be short-term losses electorally in insisting on candidates with a spotless record, though that is an alarming thought. But in the long-run it will strengthen our electoral system and the restore the faith people once had in our elected representatives.
The move for this should have come from the political parties themselves but now that the Court has forced their hand, they should accept this with good grace and not be seen to go against it in spirit, even though there may be some kinks to iron out. The best time to start an internal course correction would be now when all parties are beginning the process of selecting suitable candidates for Election 2014.