The profile of the 17th Lok Sabha presents several redeeming features. It is comparatively younger (average age 45) and better educated (394 of the 542 MPs are graduates and above). Most important, it has, for the first time, elected more women (78) than ever. In the midst of these cheery news snippets, however, there is a worrisome feature. The number of lawmakers with criminal antecedents is rising. According to data collected by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), nearly half of the newly elected Lok Sabha members have criminal charges against them, a 26 percent increase compared to 2014.
In 2009, 162 (nearly 30 percent) of the MPs had criminal charges and 14 percent had serious criminal charges. In 2014, 185 LS members (34 percent) had criminal charges and 112 had serious criminal cases against them. Political parties seem to be vying with each other to field persons with criminal background. A closer analysis of 539 winning candidates in the current elections by the ADR shows that the BJP has 116 MPs with criminal cases, followed by 29 MPs from the Congress.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly expressed alarm at the malignant impact of criminalisation of politics. “It is an extremely disastrous and lamentable situation and the unsettlingly increasing trend in the country should send shivers down the spine of a constitutional democracy,” it said in a verdict just before the 2019 elections.
The EC and the Law Commission have been making recommendations for decriminalising politics since 1997 and 1998, but no action was taken. They have made several suggestions including change in the Representation of the People’s Act.In a recent PIL, the Supreme Court has exhorted the Parliament to bring out a “strong law” whereby it would be mandatory for political parties to revoke membership of persons against whom charges were framed in heinous and grievous offences and not to field such candidates.
Unfortunately, the Indian political class has not paid any heed. It has put forward the flawed argument that such legislation will militate against the concept of presumption of innocence until a person is proven guilty and depriving a person from contesting elections on a party ticket would amount to denial of the right to vote. The argument goes on to assert that the courts must presume innocence in view of the fact that in 70 percent cases, accused are acquitted.
With the judiciary and the poll panel finding their hands tied and the central legislature unwilling to change the law, the only possible way to curb the practice is popular pressure. Unless political parties are made to realise that fielding criminals in elections could be counter-productive, they will continue to do so.