Is the party over for criminal-politicians in India?
The SC's readiness to examine the Commission's proposal has to be viewed as a sign of intent.
In a nation where religious and caste groups, bureaucrats and professionals are increasingly getting offended by the way they are depicted in popular culture, it's interesting to note that the Indian politician - often vilified in popular mediums including cinema as a morally corrupt, one-note criminal - hasn't quite objected.
Politicians, of course, have hit back as individuals at semi-fictionalised, unflattering accounts that dropped enough hints on who the object of derision was but the indignation has seldom been collective. As a class, Indian politicians appear to have reconciled with this construct, this shady other ingrained in public imagination.
Last week, the Supreme Court of India (SC) asked the Election Commission (EC) to devise a mechanism to stop entry of candidates with criminal antecedents in electoral politics. The EC has proposed a directive to political parties restraining them from giving tickets to candidates with criminal cases.
The poll panel submitted before the SC that the top court's 2018 order which directed candidates to declare criminal antecedents through the media had not helped. The new narrative underlines the ineffectiveness of the self-declaration model and seeks correction right at the source; a commitment from all political parties against fielding candidates with criminal records.
The SC's 2018 order draws from a conviction that a public declaration of criminal records provides the voter a greater chance to make an informed choice. The model does not factor in variables including political ideologies, religion and caste equations, perceptions that candidates facing cases pending conviction are acceptable, local contexts, and unknowns that shape the voter's choice. It also distances itself from the reality of the rich, corrupt and criminal candidate who funds poll campaigns and contributes financially to the party, making him or her a default, practical choice to face the election.
The court appears to have made a well-intended, guarded directive, and a call to the parliament to formulate laws to check criminalisation of politics. The decision on devising corrective measures was left for the political parties to make.
The EC's call is also in line with this stand and brings the focus back on the show-runners of Indian politics and their willingness to introspect. The numbers do make a case.
According to the New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), about 43 per cent of 539 members of parliament it analysed have criminal cases against them. After the 2014 and 2009 elections, the number of winning candidates with criminal cases stood at 34 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively. The increase in the number of MPs with declared criminal cases, since 2009, is 44 per cent.
ADR puts the number of winners in the 2019 election with serious criminal cases related to rape, murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping and crimes against women at 29 per cent (159 of 539 MPs). The increase in the number of MPs with serious criminal cases over 10 years is a staggering 109 per cent.
ADR, in another report, says that between 2009 and 2019, there has been an increase of 850 per cent in the number of MPs with declared cases of crime against women.
Poll candidates with criminal records are seen by analysts as a natural diversion off a political system that started taking shape in the 1970s - a system in which sections of the cadre started out as the muscle, rose in ranks with money and started eyeing their own share of power. This diversion also overlapped with wealthy men with criminal pasts entering politics to ensure immunity from the law.
It's tempting, at some levels, to strip the politician-public engagement of its ideological context and look at it as a one-to-one equation steered by well-defined personal interests.
It can explain, partly, the rise in the number of criminal legislators though criminality in politics remains a recurring theme in media narratives and civic movements.
This is also about a gap in services forming between the state and the people, creating a space for players who emerge as providers for the people. The perceptions of their criminality - past or present - are likely to be rendered inconsequential by their stature as alternative, accessible power centres that feed off local factors that include caste and social disparities.
So, with the EC taking the debate to where it really matters, what could push political parties into a change in stance? What's in it for them, barring a favourable change in perception among some sections of the electorate?
The SC's readiness to examine the Commission's proposal has to be viewed as a sign of intent that, however, needs to be backed with a statute and that's where the parties' compliance becomes imperative.
If the number of criminal cases against MPs across parties is indication, the possibility of the parliament stepping up with stringent laws is still distant but better conviction rates could make a start. The key - and long-term - challenge will be in ensuring a system of fair and prompt governance that, in turn, leaves these strongmen who operate outside of the system irrelevant. With greater checks on funding of political parties, their influence could be brought down across the board, setting an even field for all parties to comply. It has to be noted that blanket moves to bar candidates with criminal cases have, in the past, met with valid criticism that they could disqualify deserving men and women who are booked in minor cases. But at 29 per cent, the rate of serious criminal cases against MPs should at least act as a wake-up call if India hopes to find cure to what its top court called a malignancy.
- R. Krishnakumar is a senior journalist based in Bangalore, India
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