The tone and tenor of the political discourse that was generated following UPA’s forced withdrawal of the ordinance nullifying the Supreme Court’s showing the door to convicted legislatures may have given the impression that at least the national parties have accepted the urgency to decriminalise politics. However, a look at the candidates fielded by them in ongoing state elections shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the Chhattisgarh elections alone, 113 of 983 candidates, or a little over 11 per cent, are said to have criminal cases pending against them. Data compiled and made available by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) also shows that 66 of these candidates are involved in serious cases such as murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping and crimes against women.
A more revealing feature of the data is political affiliation of these stained candidates. Almost 15 per cent of the candidates fielded by the BJP, which is in power in Chhattisgarh, have criminal cases against them. The share of such candidates fielded by the Congress in the state is higher at 20 per cent. Given that the overall presence of tainted candidates in the fray is only 11 per cent, this shows that both the national parties are merely paying lip sympathy to the campaign against entrenchment of criminals in the polity. They do not yet want to distance themselves from candidates with criminal charges against them.
Expectedly, the leadership of the political parties have resorted to the time-tested, though illogical, argument that the crimes these political worthies have been accused are motivated and the candidates should be treated as innocent till proved guilty. This is an argument that is being put forward with sickening frequency by persons holding public positions to cling to power. It is, therefore, time to test the argument and the validity of applying the Latin dictum ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (the burden of proof lies with who declares, not who denies) to public life.
Presumption of innocence is a justified doctrine of criminal jurisprudence in civilised countries. In almost all the democratic countries, however, its application is limited to criminal trials. It has no place in administrative or public law which relates to the way governments are formed and supposed to function.
In a criminal trial, it is the life and liberty of the individual that is at stake. The judicial process must, therefore, ensure that no innocent citizen is made to suffer deprivation of his or her fundamental right even at the risk of some guilty persons getting away.
In discharge of responsibilities by a public servant—elected or nominated—what it involved is larger public interest. Public servants enjoy tremendous powers and privileges and their actions affect the entire nation. It is, therefore, necessary that holders of public offices should be above reprove. Unfortunately, irrespective of their political affiliation, India’s ruling elite seems to have ignored the fact that integrity and probity in public life are the standards that society expects those elected or appointed to public office to observe and maintain.
These standards are what safeguard the nation from corruption by politicians and public officials who have been given almost unrestricted access to public resources together with the power to take decisions that impact the lives of everyone and the nation as a whole.
In case of a person entrusted with public office, gross impropriety or serious misconduct, irrespective of whether it warrants a criminal prosecution or only departmental disciplinary action, should be immediately met with his instant removal so that he can be put out of further mischief to public interest, till he is cleared.
It is necessary that electoral laws should be amended to keep those charged with serious crimes attracting deterrent sentences or involving moral turpitude away from the electoral arena. Such people should be disqualified from contesting elections.