In a move to rid the Indian polity of criminal elements, a parliamentary panel has initiated moves to ban people charged with certain criminal offences by courts from contesting elections for at least five years.
The parliamentary standing committee on law and justice, headed by Rajya Sabha member EMS Natchiappan, decided last week to examine afresh the issue of criminalisation of Indian politics.
The panel is seeking public opinion on whether such offenders should be banned. The charges would include heinous offences like murder, rape, terrorism, drugs and smuggling framed by a competent court.
The matter was referred to the panel first by Vice President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, an avid supporter of poll reforms, in late 2005. It has begun examining the issue more than a year afterwards.
Shekhawat, in fact, referred the entire set of the Election Commission's July 2004 poll reform proposals to the panel after the law ministry paid scant regard to the commission's comprehensive 20-point proposal.
Soon after the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government assumed office in May 2004, former chief election commissioner TS Krishnamurthy referred a comprehensive 20-point poll reform proposal to the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 5, 2004.
The Prime Minister's Office forwarded the proposal to the law ministry which did precious little beyond convening an all-party meeting, ostensibly to evolve a political consensus on the issue. And subsequently, the Commission's proposal was shelved on the pretext of lack of consensus.
According to sources, Manmohan Singh was keen to restrict the presence of criminals in politics and this had led the former chief election commissioner to refer the matter to his office.
Krishnamurthy had written to the prime minister: "The Commission urges the government to give immediate consideration to these issues (of poll reforms) and, if possible, undertake necessary legislation so that the same can be made effective well before the next round of elections due in some states."
He also pointed out to the government that the Commission has been raising the issue of criminalisation of politics since 1998.
The present electoral laws ban a person from contesting elections only after his conviction in some criminal offences by a court of law.
But with many criminals winning elections due to their muscle power during the long-winding criminal trial, the commission has proposed a law to bar such people from contesting elections for up to five years on framing of charges by courts in certain offences that entail a jail term of five years or more.
Any proposal aimed at ridding the Indian polity of criminals generally lacks political consensus. Some political parties apprehend that such a law would bar many of their prominent leaders with dubious criminal antecedents from contesting polls.
Others fear that ruling parties, on the eve of elections, could slap false cases against potential winning opposition candidates to prevent them from contesting.
Accordingly, politicians have unequivocally been resorting to the judicial dictum of innocent-unless-convicted to oppose the proposals aimed at curbing criminalisation of politics.
The Election Commission's proposal, however, has factored in the genuine apprehensions of political parties. It proposes barring a person from contesting only after framing of charges against him by a court.
Incidentally, framing of charges by a court, which is an advanced stage of criminal trial, is much different from registration of a case or what is called a first information report (FIR) by the police.
An FIR merely contains the allegations by the complainant or the victim. The police subsequently investigates to verify the authenticity of the allegations in the FIR. On finding the allegations true, the police file a chargesheet in the court, enlisting the evidence to prove the allegations.
The court subsequently makes its own examination of the quality of the evidence and frames charges only after finding reasonable evidence against a person.
Thus the Election Commission's proposal being examined by the parliamentary panel does not merely redress genuine political fears but also revives hopes of a cleaner Indian political system.