An MP or MLA convicted of any criminal offence attracting a punishment of two years and above will be disqualified immediately, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.
The judgment declared as unconstitutional a provision in the Representation of the People Act that says a convicted legislator can continue in office if he/she appeals in a higher court within three months of the conviction.
“Parliament has exceeded its powers conferred by the Constitution in enacting sub-section (4) of section 8 of the Act and accordingly, sub-section (4) of section 8 of the Act is ultra vires the Constitution,” a bench of justice AK Patnaik and justice SJ Mukopadhyaya said.
It upheld the argument of the petitioner, advocate Lily Thomas, that disqualification parameters under law applied not only to those who wanted to contest elections but to sitting legislators as well.
The court, however, said its decision would not apply retrospectively to those convicted legislators who have filed appeals in higher courts. Also, a sitting legislator can continue in office if his/her conviction order gets stayed by the higher court.
The top court clarified that the stay should not only be on the punishment but also on the judgment declaring the person guilty.
The judgment is silent on what would happen if the conviction is overturned on appeal.
With 1,448 of the country’s 4,835 MPs and MLAs reportedly facing criminal charges, the ruling could well be the first big step towards cleansing the political system.
The government reacted cautiously, saying it would consult different parties before deciding its course of action on the verdict.
“We will first read the verdict and see its impact on politics,” law minister Kapil Sibal told HT but was non-committal on whether the government would seek a review of the judgment.
The BJP welcomed the verdict. “The process of electoral reforms should be expedited in light of this verdict. The government should do it on a priority basis,” vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said.
His party colleague Ravi Shankar Prasad said: “The BJP always welcomes any step aimed at purifying and strengthening the political system.”