If a third of MPs and MLAs have criminal cases, it is no longer enough to disclose this, they have to be debarred
On the face of things, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has done well to insist that both candidates with criminal charges, as well as the political parties that field them, will have to give wide publicity to the charges; the charges, the ECI has said, will have to be disclosed thrice in both newspapers as well as television channels. This, of course, needs to be monitored carefully, and more detailed instructions need to be issued on such publicity, to ensure the newspapers chosen aren’t those with a tiny circulation and, within them, the placement of the news has to be prominent. Similarly, in the case of television channels, care has to be taken to ensure the news is broadcast during prime time viewing hours and not when few are watching television. The problem with this, however, is that it may not yield much if rival candidates, equally, have criminal records; what is there to choose from when one candidate is accused of three murders and the other four? It has been more than two decades since criminal antecedents had to be mandatorily disclosed; merely adding a new instruction on how it has to be disclosed will achieve little. These candidates have to be debarred.
Many will argue, as in the past, that this violates the fundamental rights of the candidates since the charges can be fake and, under the law, they are innocent till proven guilty. That is right, but existing solutions aren’t working. There are no fast-track courts to try these charges—the Supreme Court asking the government, last year, to set up such courts doesn’t mean this will be done—and even if this is done, how do you ensure the SC disposes off the cases early when the sentences are appealed? It is surely not unreasonable to hold the representatives of the people to a higher standard of justice? And, to begin with, maybe the automatic debarring can, at least, apply to crimes like rape and murder? If this doesn’t happen, more of them will come to power—Association of Democratic Reforms’s co-founder Ajit Ranade points out that the proportion of MPs with criminal charges rose from 12% to 15% to 21% in the last three Lok Sabhas and Carnegie scholar Milan Vaishnav showed that having a criminal case boosted the probability of winning an election considerably.
Similarly, ECI has done well to insist candidates submit their last five income-tax (I-T) returns along with the declaration of their wealth, but this, too, is not enough. In a large number of cases, candidates will say their incomes come from agriculture that, by law, is not taxed. While the number of crorepati MPs rose from 156 in 2004 to 449 in 2014, there have been several high-profile MPs and ministers whose wealth has increased by leaps and bounds. In such a case, their I-T returns stating that the wealth has been generated through agriculture or donations by lakhs of ordinary well-wishers is of limited use. What is needed is for the ECI, along with the taxman, to do a detailed audit of such MPs/MLAs and follow it up with strict action when the wealth is beyond what can be easily explained. If there has to be a reasonable hope of India reducing the levels of corruption—or intimidation by the powerful—this cannot be done if its lawmakers are those perpetuating such a system. Elected representatives, like Caesar’s wife, have to be above suspicion.