It is heartening that the Supreme Court has made it mandatory for all political parties to give reasons for putting up candidates with criminal records in elections to Parliament and State assemblies. This direction has come not a day too soon because, over the years, politics in the country has got increasingly criminalised and parties of all hues have shown shocking contempt for propriety. Earlier this week, the Karnataka government had thrown propriety to the winds by succumbing to virtual blackmail by a legislator, Anand Singh, to allot him the Forestry portfolio despite several cases pending against him for breach of forestry laws. In such circumstances, it is foolhardy to expect corruption to be reined in. At the same time, an analysis of candidates for Delhi assembly elections showed that more than half of them had criminal antecedents which was hardly surprising because it has become a pattern all over the country to field tainted candidates who have the backing of money and muscle power. The court pointed out that in 2004, 24 per cent of members of Parliament had criminal cases pending against them. In 2009, that went up to 30 per cent, in 2014 to 34 per cent, and in 2019 as many as 43 per cent of MPs had criminal cases pending against them, showing the growing menace threatening the body politic in the country.
Time and again, political bigwigs have made pious claims of promoting morality in politics but acted to the contrary in picking up candidates regardless of corruption taint and muscle power. The apex court bench headed by Justice Rohinton F Nariman deserves to be commended wholeheartedly for moving decisively against tainted candidates. The court clarified that the parties cannot cite the winnability of candidates as the justification which in the past they have taken shelter under. It added that these details must also be released on social media platforms that the political parties use and all such information must be made public within 48 hours of selection of these candidates. The court further directed that the parties must also submit details of these candidates with the Election Commission within 72 hours of their selection. The court underlined that any failure to comply with the court orders shall be liable for contempt of court and that the Election Commission could approach the court in case of non-compliance. The court must now look at making the punishment for such defiance more stringent because the contempt law in effect is weak and inadequately used and requires stronger deterrence to be knit into it.
It is now incumbent on the leaders of political parties to ensure that the apex court directions are followed in letter and spirit and the system works in a manner in which the violators are duly dealt with. In the past too, the judiciary had taken some steps to stem the rot but the ills have a tendency to return. In 2013 the Supreme Court had removed a loophole in the Representation of the People Act that paved the way for instant disqualification of convicted members of Parliament and assemblies. In more recent times, the apex court ordered creation of special courts to try MPs/MLAs. It has also been provided for that political parties must publish in newspapers, official websites and social media platforms details of criminal cases against candidates and reasons for choosing them at the expense of clean candidates. These are worthy steps but the judiciary will have to guard against the general tendency to circumvent the law and pander to vested interests that have a stake in the unreformed proceeding along without hindrance.
While laws and their strict enforcement are necessary, we are now a country where rule of law has been nurtured for over seven decades of independent rule. Public-spirited organisations must step forward to act as watchdogs in defending laws and practices that are for general good. Public consciousness needs to be raised. There is indeed no better way to safeguard public interest than the hawk eye of informed citizens. Public representatives have a big role to play in ensuring that propriety is maintained. The country’s two most populous states － U.P. and Bihar － are slated to go to polls in the next two years and it would be incumbent on the Election Commission to ensure that clean politics is played and a new climate of cleaner politics emerges.
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