Legislators in Crime
Taking a step into Indian politics is infinitely easier for a criminal than for an ordinary citizen. As paradoxical as this notion is, it has proven itself true each time an election has passed by. The Association for Democratic Reform (ADR) found that in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament, the percentage of legislators with a criminal record or awaiting trial has almost doubled in the past two decades. In the 2004 Lok Sabha, this number was 24%, while in 2019, it went up to 43%. What is more concerning is that a significant number of these legislators have been accused of serious crimes such as murder and rape.
The law of the land prohibits convicts from contesting elections, but not individuals with a charge sheet against them. This gap was intentional in order to prevent state machinery from being utilised for political vendetta, however, it has been grossly exploited.
The nexus between crime and politics has held strong for decades because of its perceived benefit to three important stakeholders.
Criminals are the first and the most direct beneficiaries. In fact, booth capture and suppression or mobilisation of voters in favour of political parties were one of the main sources of income for criminals between 1940’s and the 1970’s. Their support makes the legislators indebted to them and consequently, the law enforcement system is forced to be complicit in the process. Eventually, their role shifted from henchmen to legislators themselves. The presence of such an astonishingly large number of criminals in Parliament is an ode to the ailing criminal justice system as well. A criminal could complete two terms in office before they are brought to justice.
Secondly, political parties have been gaining from their alliance with criminals since the birth of democracy in India. As Milan Vaishnav explains in his book When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, there were two factors in India’s political history that solidified this nexus. First, as regional parties were on the rise, political competition has increased the demand for criminals. This created a need and a market for criminals to generate security around electoral results for the parties. This often took place through threats and fear to secure votes.
Second, in 1969, Indira Gandhi put a ban on corporate funding for elections. This pushed a significant source of campaign finance underground. Parties preferred candidates who could secure large sums of cash and finance their campaigns. Criminals fit this bracket as many of them had managed to amass large quantities of wealth. Money plays a large role in this nexus, which is why there is great advocacy for a transparent electoral finance system.
The voters of India play a part in the preservation of this system as well. In fact, we see that a candidate with a criminal background is three times more likely to win a seat than a clean one. Struggling to access basic services such as law enforcement, healthcare, and welfare schemes, voters prefer candidates “who can get things done”, instead of one restrained by red tapism and morality. This nexus of crime and politics is actively supported by inefficient state services and poor access to justice.
The famous N N Vohra Committee in 1993, set up to unearth crime and political nexus, had documented the rise of a criminal empire with the active support of top politicians and bureaucrats, eroding the rule of law and the legitimacy of democratic governance. In its report, the committee highlighted that many criminals were running a parallel government and blamed the existing criminal justice system for failing to effectively prosecute them. It suggested several measures to break the nexus. However, the “very explosive” report was never tabled in the Parliament and has since been kept as a top-secret by the Ministry of Home Affairs. All the Right to Informations (RTIs) filed have been skillfully evaded.
All major initiatives against the crime-politics nexus have been led by the judiciary and civil society. In the case of Union of India v Association for Democratic Reforms and Another, the Supreme Court, in 2002, directed compulsory disclosure of the candidates’ financial, educational and criminal background while contesting elections. Expectedly, the court verdict was bitterly opposed by most political parties and the Union Government promulgated an ordinance, using its temporary law-making powers, to nullify the judgment. However, the court rose to the occasion by striking down the ordinance as unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court (SC) made another valiant attempt to curb criminalisation in December 2017. It asked for the setting up of special courts to fast-track the long-pending trials of elected members. In another judgment in 2018, the Supreme Court mandated the political parties and candidates to declare in print and electronic media in the locality about the antecedents of each candidate. However, these judgments did not yield any visible positive outcome as is evident from the rising number of criminal politicians in the Lok Sabha.
In February 2020, expressing concern over the growing intersection of crime and politics, the Supreme Court had ordered political parties to publish the details of their candidates with criminal charges on their websites and social media platforms, and in newspapers. The parties are required to also clearly outline the nature of the charges and explain why these candidates had been given tickets. This information was made public, and a compliance report was sent to the Election Commission (EC) within a specified period of time. The failure to do so was to be read as contempt. Upcoming Bihar elections in October 2020 will be the first election in which the Supreme Court’s decision will be implemented. The effects remain to be seen.
It is often said that the people of India need to undergo a ‘behavioural change’ in order to eradicate criminals from politics. As long as voters keep voting for criminals, there will be no solution. However, this requires a high level of trust in a better and rule-abiding alternative. It is the duty of the state and the political parties to instil this trust.
This process can be started by creating a transparent electoral funding system. This can be done through state funding of elections as recommended by various committees such as the Dinesh Goswami Committee and the Indrajit Gupta Committee on electoral reforms. This is a step towards curbing the use of black money to a large extent and limiting criminalisation of politics.
Another profusely opposed way forward is bringing political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act, 2005. Except for their political strategy, other matters relating to finance and administration should be made available to the public. The current system of electoral bonds does not promote transparency in funding.
There is also a need for increasing the powers of the Election Commission. The Election Commission can register a political party but cannot deregister it. As a neutral body, it is essential that the EC is allowed to regulate the affairs of a political party for a cleaner electoral process.
There is no shortage of suggestions and reforms, what the Indian political system lacks is any sort of incentive to push these forward. The implementation of the February 2020 judgment guidelines will show whether seeing the true and bare face of the criminal-political nexus at an official level awakens the dormant morality of the Indian electorate or not.
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