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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.