Late 70s is an unlikely age for a woman to pick a hardy battle to clean up politics. When activist and lawyer Lily Thomas, now 85, moved India’s top court in 2005 to plead for convicted lawmakers to be barred from elections, she knew she had a strong case.
Thomas got victory last July when the court ruled such lawmakers out for six years, even if their convictions were under appeal. “This is a milestone,” she told HT. The court struck down Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), which allowed convicted lawmakers to continue, as their appeals drift from one hearing to the next. As a result of the verdict, RJD chief Lalu Prasad was ousted from Parliament.
Yet, as political parties gird up for another dead-heat election, they have not hesitated in picking candidates with grave charges – offences that can attract a jail term of more than two years.
In India’s first-past-the-post election system, it often takes wealthy heavyweights to win polls. Data analysed over 10 years since 2004 by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), an advocacy group, suggest that candidates convicted or facing serious criminal charges are twice as likely to be elected to the Lok Sabha. Those facing criminal charges had 23% chance of winning, compared to just 12% for those without a criminal case.
So far, nearly a third of the candidates named by the Congress in its second list and the BJP’s third list face a criminal case, ADR’s analysis shows. The BJP has 17 (32%) while the Congress has 11 (28%).
Ashok Chavan, the former Maharashtra chief minister named by an inquiry panel in the Adarsh housing scandal, will run for the Congress. So will the BJP’s Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, whose charges include murder and rioting.
According to Manjari Katju of the University of Hyderabad, “socio-economic inequalities” and “uneven power equations” in society are deeper reasons behind criminalisation of politics.
Another recent Supreme Court ruling that cracks down on crime in politics came in the chief election commissioner vs Jan Chawkidari case, in which the court barred those in police custody or under arrest from contesting. However, experts feel this one is prone to misuse.
In a bid to nudge parties to field decent candidates, the Election Commission is introducing a reject option this time, called none-of-the-above voting option. “If the share of voters rejecting all candidates is more than those of the winning candidate, parties could be forced to re-think,” said ADR founder Jagdeep Chhokar.