The Supreme Court said on Wednesday that lawmakers facing criminal charges should not be made ministers, but put the moral onus of pushing tainted politicians out of government on the prime minister and chief ministers.
On the face of it, the court’s refusal to order the disqualification of tainted ministers signals a breather for at least 12 central ministers who face serious criminal charges, including kidnapping and murder. But it also means pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to act to be seen as upholding corruption-and crime-free governance, a key pledge in his high-decibel Lok Sabha campaign.
The unanimous court verdict came on a 2005 petition seeking to bar MPs with "criminal backgrounds", including those charged but not yet convicted of crimes, from being appointed ministers in state and federal governments.
SC dismisses petition on appointment of tainted ministers, says its call of ‘framers of Constitution’
"It can always be legitimately expected … the Prime Minister, while living up to the trust reposed in him, would consider not choosing a person with criminal antecedents against whom charges have been framed for heinous or serious criminal offences or charges of corruption to become a Minister of the Council of Ministers.
"This is what the Constitution suggests and that is the constitutional expectation from the Prime Minister. Rest has to be left to the wisdom of the Prime Minister. We say nothing more, nothing less," the bench said.
Opposition parties used the judgement to take a swipe at the BJP-led government, with the Congress saying the court order was an indirect advice to Modi to drop those with criminal background from his government.
"Before becoming the prime minister of the country and the elections, he must have said that my cabinet will be clean and we are going to fight corruption," Congress leader Rashid Alvi said.
"It is the responsibility of the prime minister to drop all of them and take action.”
The court said a prime minster is expected to uphold the values of democracy and established norms of good governance. It refused to add disqualification in Article 75 (1) and Article 164 (1) which deal with the appointment of the prime minister and chief ministers and their councils of ministers respectively.
Nudging the heads of executive to clean up politics, the court said it expected the heads of central and state governments to act in the interest of the nation.
“(The prime minister) has to bear in mind that unwarranted elements or persons who are facing charge in certain category of offences may thwart or hinder the canons of constitutional morality or principles of good governance and eventually diminish the constitutional trust,” it said.
At least 12 of Modi's 45 ministers have been charged with criminal offences, including eight facing serious charges, according to the Delhi-based Association of Democratic Reforms, a clean government advocacy group.
Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation Minister Uma Bharti has 13 cases pending, including two charges related to attempted murder and six charges related to rioting. Transport and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari has four cases, including one charge of criminal intimidation.
MPs say the charges against them are false or trumped up by political opponents seeking to harm their reputations.
MPs convicted of crimes have customarily continued to hold office simply by filing an appeal in courts. But in a landmark judgement last July, the Supreme Court ruled that MPs sentenced to more than three years in jail should be disqualified regardless of any appeal.
The previous UPA government tried to reverse the ruling which affected a long list of MPs, but dropped its bid after Rahul Gandhi expressed his displeasure with such efforts in the face of a major public backlash.