One in three MPs were facing serious criminal charges in 2019, while this ratio was one in five in 2014.
Various attempts have been made over the years to try and decriminalise India’s politics. In 2013, in the Lily Thomas case, the Supreme Court ruled that there would be immediate disqualification as soon as any court convicted a politician; this meant the endless time given for the appeals to end was done away with. But, since conviction in India also takes a very long time, the Association for Democratic Reforms found that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections had 43% winners with criminal cases as compared to 34% and 30% in 2014 and 2009, respectively. One in three MPs were facing serious criminal charges in 2019, while this ratio was one in five in 2014.
That is also why one of the proposals before the Election Commission of India (ECI) was to recommend amending the law so that any person accused of a crime was debarred from contesting elections once the charges were framed by a court. The reasoning here was that while frivolous charges could be brought against anyone, considerable thought would have gone into the issue before a court actually frames the charges; in which case, that should be sufficient to debar a candidate. This, in fact, was an argument even the Law Commission has made in the past.
Certain checks were also proposed to ensure that legal charges weren’t used as a political tool; so, for instance, it could be stipulated that no charges made six months before an election were to be taken into account, or the debarring could only apply to those offences where the maximum sentence would be five years or more.
Yet, when the matter was before the Supreme Court in 2018, it contented itself with directing that, for now, both the candidates and the parties needed to give wide publicity—in prominent newspapers, and television channels/radio—to the criminal charges. It is not clear that, in the 2019 elections, ‘these directions (were) implemented in true spirit and right earnestness’ to, as the SC said, ‘strengthen the democratic set-up’. Which is perhaps why the SC added, ‘a time has come that the Parliament must make law to ensure that persons facing serious criminal cases do not enter into the political stream’. With the political class, not surprisingly, not doing anything to stop criminals from becoming MLAs/MPs, the SC is once again examining the issue. Hopefully, this time around, it will be quite strict.
Not allowing those with allegations of criminal charges to fight elections may be violating their constitutional rights, but allowing criminals to be MLAs/MPs violates the citizens’ rights; and, if Parliament wants to protect the rights of those with criminal charges, it can legislate that cases of politicians need to be fast-tracked in court.