Tuesday’s Supreme Court order directing state governments to not drop criminal cases against elected representatives without the approval of High Courts is yet another nudge to the political class to clean the electoral system and rid criminal elements from politics. Various courts have, in the past, made attempts to address the issue of an increasing number of politicians with criminal backgrounds entering the hallowed legislatures. Last year, the apex court directed all political parties to upload the criminal antecedents of their candidates before elections. Earlier, it prodded Parliament to pass a law to bar politicians from contesting elections for six years after a criminal conviction. But these steps do not appear to have deterred parties from fielding criminals during elections.
On the contrary, more and more such candidates are being elected to Parliament and state Assemblies. Eminent political scientist Milan Vaishnav pointed out in his seminal book, When Crime Pays, that the increasing cost of polls is forcing parties to turn to cash-rich musclemen who can not only use their criminal backgrounds to intimidate voters but also win without the parties having to invest too much money on their election. So the first step needed to cleanse the system is to ban criminals from contesting. Anyone with a criminal record must be disqualified from entering the electoral fray. But that is easier said than done, given the huge stakes involved in the pursuit of power and the winnability of such criminal-candidates.
As political parties are unlikely to take any step towards banning musclemen, raising awareness among voters of the need to keep out such elements through a sustained campaign is an option. But that will take decades to bear fruit. It is perhaps time the Supreme Court steps in. The top court in 2018, while respecting the separation of powers between the three pillars of the government, had refused to pass an order, saying it was up to Parliament to enact a law to keep out criminals. But the question is, should society and the health of our democratic polity be held hostage to such conventions and practices even as the rot continues?