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Criminalisation of Politics: A Grave Threat to Democracy

The infiltration of criminals into politics has become a growing concern, raising serious questions about the integrity of democratic processes. The criminalisation of politics, with candidates charged with heinous offences holding positions of power, has cast a shadow on governance, accountability, and the people's trust, writes Diksha Puri.

By Diksha Puri
New Update

Criminalisation of politics
Criminalisation of politics | representative image | The Probe

Recently, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an advocacy group focused on electoral reforms, wrote a letter to the Election Commission of India (ECI) urging the Commission to take action against political parties that have failed to disclose the criminal backgrounds of candidates they have nominated in various assembly elections conducted in recent years.

Prof. Trilochan Sastry, Founder and Trustee of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) speaks on criminalisation of politics 

Based on the Supreme Court’s directives on September 25, 2018, and February 13, 2020, political parties have been instructed to disclose the criminal histories of candidates contesting elections. They are also required to provide reasons for nominating these candidates, regardless of their perceived chances of winning. The ECI has further issued a directive to ensure the implementation of the court’s orders regarding the declaration of candidates’ criminal backgrounds. However, despite multiple reminders, several political parties in India persistently neglect to fulfil these obligations of public disclosure.

“Electoral reforms have been at the forefront of ADR’s commitment. We have been doing many surveys on criminal politicians, and we ensure that this information is readily available to the public. The time has come for the Election Commission of India to take decisive action against political parties that willfully defy the directives of both the Supreme Court and the ECI. Individuals engaged in criminal activities are ill-suited for governance as their focus remains fixated on their unlawful pursuits. Consequently, corruption thrives, public services deteriorate, roads suffer, government schools falter, and public healthcare centres operate inefficiently. These criminals prioritise self-interest over serving the people. Hence, those genuinely dedicated to public service must be given tickets by political parties to contest in elections, but there is no political will to make this a reality,” states Prof. Trilochan Sastry, Founder and Trustee of ADR.

According to Professor Sastry, the voters need to be well-informed about the serious criminal cases linked to the candidates they are considering supporting. He suggests that if voters were provided with comprehensive details of these criminal cases right at the polling booth before they cast their votes, it could have a significant impact on the electoral outcomes. By making such information readily available, many candidates with criminal backgrounds may lose public trust and support.

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Senior advocate Vikas Singh, who previously represented the Election Commission in a case pertaining to the criminalisation of politics, says there are huge complexities surrounding the matter. He emphasises that the responsibility should lie with political parties not to nominate candidates with criminal backgrounds. In an interview with The Probe, Vikas Singh, who also serves as the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), notes that the political class is employing manipulative tactics in an attempt to undermine the directives of the apex court.

“The Supreme Court’s directive was clear – the criminal backgrounds of candidates given tickets by political parties should be made public on the website. However, this measure proved ineffective as criminals contested and even won elections. Recognising the need for a more robust solution, I proposed that pressure be exerted on political parties, making them accountable for their choices. It was crucial to question why they were granting tickets to criminals instead of individuals with good reputations. Unfortunately, political parties started circumventing the directive of the Supreme Court by adopting a standard defence tactic, claiming false cases were foisted against the candidates nominated by them. They started presenting these criminal candidates as social workers. In each case, they began using this generic one-liner defence without examining the merits of the case. As a result, the Supreme Court’s order was defeated,” explains Singh. 

Singh questions, “Why should politicians be given special powers? Can a charge-sheeted person become an IAS officer? Can he hold any civil services posts? Then why should politicians be given this unfair privilege which goes against the very spirit of our democracy? In this case, the change can only be brought in by the Parliament. The Election Commission has been turned into a toothless body. Only political will can bring about change”.  

According to a recent report published by ADR, approximately 45 per cent of the candidates from Congress, BJP, and JD(S) who participated in the recently held Karnataka elections had criminal cases registered against them. Alarmingly, nearly 30 per cent of these candidates were accused of grave offences, including rape and murder. Professor Sastry highlights that India stands out as one of the few countries where criminals are permitted to participate freely in elections and emerge as winners.

“Look, let’s take the example of the United States. If someone has a murder or rape case, they would never even be considered for a political ticket. Such individuals would be excluded from contesting elections. However, in India, that is not the case. This poses a serious threat to our democratic process. Democracy with criminals is not a healthy democracy. It is crucial to raise awareness among the people about the issue of criminalisation of politics. They need to understand that if they vote for such individuals, they are not just harming the country but also themselves. For instance, if you are a person from an economically disadvantaged background and you vote for such candidates, your children’s education will suffer because the schools won’t be properly run. Similarly, when you need medical assistance, the hospitals will not function effectively due to the massive corruption indulged in by these criminals. You will be deprived of basic amenities and services,” notes Professor Sastry. 

According to Gopal Sankaranarayanan, a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court of India, many politicians are well aware of the significant power and influence they hold as lawmakers. They recognise that their positions grant them the ability to not only block any laws that could hold them accountable but also to exert influence over government officials, ensuring that cases are not filed against them and that they remain protected.

“ADR surveys have shown a gradual rise in the numbers of individuals with criminal offences and charges framed against them. Currently, nearly 44 per cent of all Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs) face serious criminal charges. This is a highly concerning situation. However, both the Supreme Court and the Election Commission find their hands tied in addressing this issue. The resolution lies in the existence of a political will, which unfortunately is challenging to come by,” asserts Sankaranarayanan. 

Read also: Karnataka Election Results 2023: What Win Means To Congress And Loss To BJP

Jagdeep S Chhokar, the Founder and Trustee of ADR, expresses his concerns about the existing laws and their suitability in addressing the issue of criminalisation in politics. He highlights the exploitation of these laws by politicians who take advantage of the loopholes. He says there is an immediate need to tackle the challenge of the intertwining of criminalisation and financial power. 

“In the current political landscape, politicians and political parties often prioritise candidate selection based on their perceived “winnability.” However, this criterion solely focuses on a candidate’s ability to secure electoral victory, disregarding the means employed to achieve that victory. Unfortunately, many elections witness the use of illicit methods and unfair practices, which is a departure from the principles of genuine public service. Politics has transformed into a pursuit of power rather than a commitment to serving the public interest,” explains Chhokar.

One major concern in the realm of criminalisation of politics is the classification of political cases filed by rivals as criminal records, which raises questions about the definition and severity of a criminal record. This blurring of lines between politically motivated cases and genuine criminal offences makes it even more easier for political parties to take advantage of the loopholes in the current system. 

Political scientist Dr Sandeep Shastri sheds light on the reasons behind the increasing presence of individuals with criminal records in politics. He says that the time has come to reevaluate the definition of a criminal record. "There is an element of numbness that has got into the voters in defining and deciding whom they want to vote for, and that factor does not seem to be high on the order of their priority. This broad category of criminal records includes all types of people—even those against whom political cases filed by rivals have also been classified as a criminal record. What constitutes a criminal record in terms of the seriousness of the crime? All this must be seriously looked at. Today, voters vote keeping in mind the party label and not keeping in mind the candidate label. So, most people don't look at the profile of a candidate, but they are looking at the profile of the political party. In my view, the combination of the above factors has led to those with criminal records being voted to the legislature," states Shastri.

Despite repeated calls for electoral reforms and transparency in the political system, the issue of criminalisation of politics continues to plague India's democratic landscape. The rampant nomination of candidates with criminal backgrounds not only undermines the principles of democracy but also erodes public trust in the electoral process. The lack of political will and loopholes in existing laws have allowed this alarming trend to persist. The time for comprehensive electoral reforms is long overdue, and failure to address the persistent issue of criminalisation of politics poses a grave threat to the very fabric of Indian democracy.