The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice has a tightrope walk before it. It has to formulate its stand before the budget session of Parliament in February on the contentious issue of whether a candidate should be disqualified from contesting elections following framing of charges in keeping with the Election Commission's proposal or whether it should be after conviction, as is the practice now.
"We will give our report on the disqualification issue in the last week of January or the first week of February. The Law Ministry wants an opinion on this so that the government can come with a bill during the budget session" said EM Sudarsana Natchiappan, Rajya Sabha MP and head of the parliamentary panel.
The government is keen to bring the bill before the Goa and UP assembly elections and the byelections to 10 Lok Sabha vacancies. The elections in Manipur, Punjab and Uttarakhand will take place ahead of the budget session.
While the question of pre-conviction disqualification - being considered for the first time - is seen as important in cleansing the electoral system of criminal elements, opinion is divided on it. Natchaippan admitted the issue needed careful examination.
Under the law, a person is assumed to be innocent till proved guilty through a final conviction. "Now we are departing from it. We hope there will be a consensus on it. The idea is stop criminal elements from the process of taking stay on the conviction and escape disqualification.
But by making framing of charges in the court a point on disqualification, we are also making a very big departure from relying more on the prosecution than the decision of the judge," Natchiappan said.
In giving its opinion, the panel would need to balance a citizen's right to clean governance with the right of the accused, under the law, to be considered innocent till proved guilty. Secondly, it has to ensure that disqualification of persons charged with heinous crimes is not liable to abuse.
The panel's recommendation would have an impact on JMM leader Shibu Soren who has been convicted in a murder case and a host of leaders, cutting across the political spectrum, against whom there are chargesheets.
To build a consensus on the tricky question, the panel has sought opinion from people and parties. "About 10 days back, I wrote to leaders of different political parties for their views on this specific issue. I am now waiting for their reply," said Natchaippan.
The issue of pre-conviction disqualification is part of the EC's agenda to cleanse politics of criminalisation. The EC proposal is based on the Law Commission's report "Reforms of the Electoral Laws" which seeks addition of Section 8B in the RPA.
The proposed section calls for disqualification for offences like promoting enmity between community, disrupting communal harmony, bribery and election-related offences, undue influence or impersonation, false statement in connection with an election, illegal payments, failure to keep election accounts and rape.
It also includes offences listed under Unlawful Activities (prevention) Act, 1967 and Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic substances Act, 1985 or any other offence punishable with life imprisonment or death.
The Natchiappan panel is also entrusted with the two other tasks. The first is to give its views on 21 counts relating to electoral reforms following a reference by Rajya Sabha Chairman BS Shekhawat in December 2006. These include the eligibility criteria to contest elections, the use of money and muscle power in the criminalisation of elections, and preparation and revision of electoral rolls to ensure there is one common list of voters for local, state and general elections.
The committee has already sent three letters to recognised national and state parties and interacted with various leaders and opinion makers. It will also study the Law Commission's report and the EC's proposals on the matter. "Preparing a report on the issue of electoral reforms may take some more time," said PC Alexander, former governor of Maharashtra, when asked whether the panel of which he is a member will be able to submit its report by the Budget session.
The second task entrusted to the panel is to examine the contentious Judges (Inquiry Bill, 2006) and give its report on the feedback it gets from various sections on the legislation which has a limited purpose of setting up a National Judicial Council to deal with complaints against Supreme Court and high court judges.
"The subject calls for urgency. We will have several sittings on the issue this month," said Natchaippan. In a bid to get the stakeholders on board on the issue, the committee plans to seek the views of 30 prominent representatives connected with the judiciary, including sitting and retired Supreme Court and high court, Bar Council members, jurists and legal luminaries. Opinion remains divided on the composition of the NJC, admitted Natchaippan.