Monday, June 16, 2008

Deceits of our political class June 15, 2008

Another election has come and gone. As the dust settles in Karnataka, Election Watch, a civil society watchdog, has reported that 40 out of the 224 winning MLAs have a criminal record. Of those who contested three were brothers--all of them criminals. To make sure one succeeded the brothers obtained tickets from different parties. The bet paid off--one was elected.

We have known about criminals in our politics for some time now. It is easy to get depressed when law breakers become law makers. Yet there are reasons to feel hopeful. Karnataka has elected 20% fewer criminals. Jaffer Sharief, the former union minister, was unable to give a Congress ticket to the notorious Samiullah because of local outcry. Criminal MLAs have declined in Gujarat, Delhi, MP, and Rajasthan. Even in corrupt UP, criminal MLAs came down in 2007 from 206 to 160. There are no criminals in the Bihar cabinet. Both the BJP and the Congress have begun to scrutinise candidates more diligently.

The nation has to thank a group of professors at the Indian Institutes of Management for this. Disgusted with our politics, they formed the Association of Democratic Reforms, which filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Delhi High Court in December 1999 demanding the Election Commission provide voters with the criminal background of candidates. They won the case. The government appealed, however. The IIM professors again won in the Supreme Court in May 2002. At this point, twenty one political parties rose up against the Supreme Court’s decision. The government hastily brought in an ordinance, which the Supreme Court also declared illegal.

As a result election candidates are now required to file an affidavit giving details of convictions or pending criminal cases. This is a big step forward. 1200 NGOs have joined together to form Election Watch to publicise criminality of candidates. A Bill on Electoral Expenses in 2003 has tried to control political expenditure, and the Central Information Commission’s ruling last month that income-tax returns of the political parties must be provided under the Right to Information Act will boost financial accountability.

Politicians argue that all this will lead to frivolous and false frame-ups by crooked rivals. It will. Note, however, that candidates are expected to disclose only cases that have been admitted for trial with charges framed. Analysis of Rajasthan Assembly elections in December 2003 showed that half the alleged criminals were, in fact, criminals who were in the midst of trial proceedings on very serious charges. The other claim of politicians that offences are mostly political in nature--related to bunds, dharnas and rallies--is also not borne out by data. It also begs the question, why should politicians flout prohibitory norms in the first place? It is true, this will not stop false cases but in the end transparency is a greater good. The real worry is that most crimes of politicians are never even booked--this is the real deceit of the political class.

You would think that political parties would not want to be tainted by criminals. So, why give them tickets? It must be because they are “winnable” with their money and muscle power. For the whole political class to unite, however, to prevent disclosure and transparency is an amazing act of deceit. One day, perhaps, the cost of harbouring criminals will become intolerable as civil society pressure grows. Meanwhile, let us celebrate the fact that a few determined individuals could take on the entire political class with the aid, no doubt, of the two institutions that we admire--our higher judiciary and our Election Commission. It restores our faith in democracy.

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