Union Minister for Home Affairs Rajnath Singh recently said that politicians with criminal past should resign on their own. For Singh, this is surely a matter of pride, for when reports about his son Pankaj allegedly taking bribes for police posting appeared in 2014, the home minister had said that he would quit politics if charges were proven.
Singh's statement has gained a lot of importance, especially since the Central government, of which Singh is a cabinet minister, seems to hold a different point of view on the issue. Replying to a petitioner's demand seeking lifetime ban on convicted politicians, the Centre had said in its affidavit that the prayer was not maintainable and the plea should be dismissed. To which the apex court had replied, "Why not?"
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court toughened its stand on the issue, ordering the government to expedite trials of pending 1,581 cases against MPs and MLAs and to create special courts for the same.
The government's stand so far, which is now being opposed by Chief Election Commissioner AK Joti as well, is not only surprising but baffling, and is likely to put the BJP government in an uncomfortable position especially since it has been putting forth itself as the 'only government capable of cleaning Indian systems'. Last year, on 8 November, it had taken a tough stand banning old notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 in order to tackle corruption and black money and continues to champion it even though it caused a lot of hardship to the people of India.
The question then arises is why is it the BJP which came to power as a hope against prevalent corruption is so reluctant to take a similar stand when it comes to cleaning Indian politics? More so, when, that criminals are plaguing Indian politics and policymaking, is public knowledge. In fact, before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 30 percent of members of Parliament had criminal cases pending against them.
Why the opposition?
In the upcoming Himachal Pradesh Assembly Election, voting for which will take place on 9 November, out of the 338 candidates fielded by different political parties, 61(18 percent) candidates have declared criminal cases against them, while 31(9 percent) candidates have declared serious criminal cases against them, says an ADR report. BJP tops the list fielding 23 candidates with declared criminal cases and nine candidates with serious criminal cases in the Himachal Pradesh Assembly poll.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha Election, which the BJP won with a strong mandate, 33 percent (140 out of 426) of its candidates were facing criminal charges. In comparison, 28 percent of INC, 23 percent of BSP and 15 percent of AAP candidates were known to be facing criminal charges. Of all the BJP candidates, 21 percent (89 out of 426) were facing serious criminal cases, also the highest among all political parties.
BJP had fielded the maximum number of candidates with criminal history during the Bihar Assembly elections in 2015 as well. In the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Election, where the BJP registered a resounding victory, an ADR study revealed that 36 percent BJP candidates had declared criminal cases against them whereas 26 percent were facing serious criminal cases. Though BJP came third, it was very close to BSP (40 percent) and SP (37 percent).
Turns out, fielding candidates with criminal history contest in an election has its own benefits. Milan Vaishnav, author of the book When Crime Pays: Money And Muscle In Indian Politics, in a 2014 article argued that "politicians with criminal records are supplying what voters and parties demand: candidates who are effective and well-funded" because that improves their chances of winning an election, by 15 percent to be exact.
BJP ranked top even in terms of the new MPs in the 2014 Lok Sabah Election with over a third of its elected MPs facing criminal charges. So, BJP beat Congress in these elections not only in terms of seats but also in terms of fielding candidates with criminal antecedents.
On a more general note, it would be wrong to say that other political parties don't field candidates with a criminal history. They all do, and sadly, it's rising. In fact, a third (34 percent) of 543 MPs who were elected in 2014 Lok Sabha polls faced criminal charges, up from 30 percent in 2009 and 24 percent in 2004.
In the upcoming Himachal Pradesh Assembly election, there are 16 Independent candidates with declared criminal cases and 6 with serious criminal charges taking the second slot. Congress, on the other hand, has six candidates with declared criminal cases and three candidates with serious criminal cases lesser than CPM, which takes the third slot with 10 and nine cases respectively.
Clarity in the criminal history of politicians is a relatively latest concept, something that started only in 2003 after the Supreme Court of India ruled that all persons contesting in an election whether at the state or national level must submit a judicial affidavit detailing pending criminal cases along with financial liabilities, assets, and educational qualification. The latest crackdown from the Supreme Court is likely to emerge as another major step in cleaning Indian politics.
The government's reluctance (though its stance seemed more positive on Wednesday's hearing) is worrying more so when politicians facing criminal cases are rarely convicted. The Supreme Court order demanding conviction details in 1,581 cases against MPs and MLAs could prove to be a real eye-opener.
One can only hope that the government would show the same bravery in cleaning Indian politics it showed in weeding out black money with demonetisation (even though the results of the drive are debatable).
Updated Date: Dec 18, 2017 08:08 AM