Three Cheers To Indian Democracy! ~ sam rajappa
ALL parties were agreed that criminals should be kept out of politics but none was prepared to do anything about the matter except appointing government committees to study the problem and come out with recommendations. Apart from the Election Commission&’s electoral reforms proposal of 2004, seeking to keep candidates accused of serious criminal charges from contesting election to Parliament or State legislatures, the Goswami Committee on Electoral Reforms of 1990, Vohra Committee Report of 1993, Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections, 1998, Law Commission Report on Reform of the Electoral Laws, 1999, National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, 2001, and the Second Administrative Reforms Commission, 2008, were unanimous on keeping criminals out of elective politics. It is the failure of successive Union governments to act on the plethora of recommendations to keep criminals out of our legislatures and the empirical evidence that criminalisation of politics has led to the spate of corruption in high places which compelled the Supreme Court to strike down Section 8 (4) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, as unconstitutional, in its historic judgment of 10 July. Instead of welcoming the judgment, the UPA government filed a revision petition only to get egg on its face.
Not wanting to admit defeat, the government hastily convened an all-party meeting and obtained the consent of the main Opposition parties to enact a law to annul the Supreme Court order. Barring the Biju Janata Dal and the CPI, all other parties acquiesced to the government move. The Representation of the People (Second Amendment and Validation) Bill, 2013, was introduced in the Rajya Sabha during the Monsoon session with virtually no opposition except for a BJP member casting doubts about its constitutional validity.
The Bill was referred to the Standing Committee of Parliament. Only when the government came up with the Representation of the People (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance, 2013, to give immediate relief to convicted criminals, did civil society wake up to the evil designs of the government and the Opposition parties were forced to take a stand. It may be recalled the BJP, which has taken a ‘holier than the Congress’ attitude, led a delegation to Rashtrapati Bhavan to prevail on President Pranab Mukherjee not to give his assent to the Ordinance.
Public memory is proverbially short. In the summer of 2002, when the Supreme Court ruled that all candidates seeking election to legislatures should reveal criminal cases pending against them or record of conviction, if any, their assets and liabilities, while filing their nomination, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government did exactly what the Manmohan Singh government has done. An Ordinance to annul the Supreme Court order was sent to President Abdul Kalam. The Congress led a delegation to Rashtrapati Bhavan advising Kalam not to sign the BJP Ordinance. The President returned the Ordinance to the Cabinet and the BJP government sent it back to Rashtrapati Bhavan. Kalam had no option but to sign. The Supreme Court struck down the Ordinance as unconstitutional.
Before President Mukherjee could give his assent or return the Representation of the People (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance, public anger was building up against the UPA government and Narendra Modi, the BJP&’s prime ministerial candidate, was drawing huge, approving crowds across the country. The presumptive prime ministerial candidate of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi, was not to be seen or heard anywhere. It was under these circumstances the Congress strategists came out with the stage-managed charade of making Rahul gate-crash into the Press Club of India in New Delhi as a knight errant where the party&’s general secretary, Ajay Maken, was defending the indefensible Ordinance, and uttered his well-rehearsed two lines calling it a “complete nonsense” and that it should be torn to pieces and thrown away.
Not much prominence was given to the most sensitive part of Rahul&’s statement. He said: “If you want to fight corruption in this country, the Congress or the BJP, we cannot continue making these small compromises.” Will Rahul tear up the Parliamentary Committee&’s report on the 2G spectrum scam in which his party colleague PC Chacko made an excellent job of whitewashing the involvement of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance minister P Chidambaram? Would he take an uncompromising stand on the UPA government de-freezing the London bank account of Ottavio Quatrochchi in which he had parked the Bofors kickbacks? His Press Club intervention succeeded in diverting attention away from the Modi cavalcade and put himself on centre-stage. It was reminiscent of Rajiv Gandhi&’s famous words about weeding out power brokers and ending with the Bofors scandal. The Ordinance was a product of the Cabinet, fully endorsed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
An analysis done by the Association of Democratic Reforms reveals that only 24 out of 4,807 MPs and MLAs in the country have declared in their affidavits of ever being convicted in a court of law. ADR has analysed 47,389 affidavits of Assembly and Lok Sabha candidates since 2008 and found 8,041 have declared criminal cases against them, 3,759 were of serious nature. The Election Commission has been pleading for reforms for the last two and a half decades to cleanse the electoral system by keeping criminals out. Criminalisation of politics affects the basic structure of democracy. The Ordinance has the effect of perpetuating the presence of criminals in our legislatures. According to the existing provision of the RPA, anyone found guilty of a criminal offence and convicted for a prison term of two years or more is disqualified to contest elections for six years. A sitting member of the legislature, however, cannot be disqualified automatically if the lawmaker challenges his conviction in a higher court within three months and gets a stay of conviction and the sentence.
The Supreme Court order was necessitated by the government&’s failure to bring about much needed electoral reforms. When SY Quraishi was the Chief Election Commissioner, then Law minister Salman Khurshid went to Nirvachan Sadan thrice to give an assurance that the government was serious about reforming electoral laws and sought some minor modifications to the Commission&’s proposal. The court is an independent judicial body and framing of charges is done with judicial application of mind even if prima facie at that stage. The Commission suggested at least in those cases in which the FIR had been registered against candidates six months prior to the election should be barred. Khurshid wanted one year from the chargesheet instead of six months. Quraishi readily agreed. But there was no action on the part of the government since then.
Under the Constitution, all are equal before laws made by Parliament. Articles 102 (1) (e) and 191 (1) (e) oblige Parliament to make laws common to all citizens. By striking down Section 8 (4) of the RPA, the Supreme Court had only rectified an anomaly in the law made by Parliament. In case both the Houses of Parliament passed the Representation of the People (Second Amendment and Validation) Bill and the President gave his assent to it, the Supreme Court would have struck it down as unconstitutional as it would have amounted to interfering with the exercise of the judicial powers of the apex court. Also, it would have violated Article 14 of the Constitution which says, “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India.” By mocking at the Congress line on criminalisation of politics, Rahul Gandhi has not only embarrassed Manmohan Singh, who has been keeping the seat warm for him, but also established beyond doubt that India under the UPA is not a parliamentary democracy but a country ruled by a dynasty.
The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School