I am ashamed to call myself a member of Parliament in a House which features D.P. Yadav and others of his ilk," observes Gangacharan Rajput, MP from Hamirpur. Noble sentiments, no doubt. But it comes from a man who himself faces at least eight criminal cases. Rajput is one among the 39 sitting Lok Sabha members who have a past that should have discredited them. But they have all been elected and are alarming examples of the growing nexus between crime and politics.
The problem seems to be endemic to the system. There is a sense of helplessness. While all shades of politicians are quick to point out how politics has to be cleansed of crime, no tangible remedies to the malaise are forthcoming. Indeed, more than ever, politics appears to be dependent on crime as much as crime is dependent on politics. This alone can explain the brazen manner in which political parties field candidates who are charged with murder, rape and abduction. There seems to be no stigma attached to a person with a criminal record, once he or she is inducted into mainstream politics.
Even the Electoral Reforms Bill, introduced by the Deve Gowda Government this fortnight, does not touch upon banning those with cases registered against them from contesting elections. The Bill, in the main, merely attempts to discourage non-serious candidates who treat elections far too frivolously. But the new Bill runs out of ideas when it comes to preventing the criminalisation of politics which has become a rather sensitive issue for most political parties since they harbour undesirable elements.
For those with an 'undesirable past', the name of the game is to attribute cases against them to political vendettas, while criticising those from rival parties named in FIRs. So Rajput dismisses the charges against him as "political cases". D.P. Yadav and "others of his ilk" make the same plea; they are, they all claim, victims of "mischief" by political opponents. Others like Azamgarh MP Ramakant Yadav, who has a yard-long historysheet, doesn't even attempt a defence: "Why should I bother to comment? I have been an MLA four times and have now been elected MP. Isn't it obvious that the people are with me? Why should I care for anything else?"
Surprisingly, it is people with a criminal record who are the most vocal about preventing criminals from entering politics. Declares Ashok Singh, BJP MP from Rae Bareilly, who has at least six cases—including a murder charge—against him: "People with historysheets should not be given tickets," but, he hastens to add, "political cases" do not a historysheeter make.
Likewise, D.P. Yadav, often referred to as the don of western Uttar Pradesh, insists that people with an "apradhik itihas" (criminal past)—he cites two MPs from Bihar—should not be allowed to contest elections. As far as his own record is concerned, he declares: "I don't care if there are 500 cases against me. I will continue to fight for my self-respect." He calls for a national debate on the subject. "First we should establish 'apradhi kaun hai?' Who is the real mafia? I am making a film on the subject called Mafia Kaun? The police and the administration will be exposed," says the 'don'.
So far so good. But how can the complex problem of criminalisat-ion of politics be solved? The cross-section of MPs contacted by Outlook feels it is up to political parties to clean the system by cleansing themselves. This, some of them felt, is not likely to happen and therefore it will eventually be left to the electorate to vote against the criminals. The logic is that if candidates of dubious character fail to win elections they will not be fielded by political parties. Points out Rajput: "The answer ultimately lies with the people. Only they can force political parties to weed out the criminal elements."
For those looking for a quick solution, Jaipal Reddy, senior Janata Dal leader and United Front spokesman, paints a gloomy picture. He points out that all the purely legal remedies to prevent criminals from entering the political system have been exhausted. Going by the law, only those convicted of serious crime are forbidden to contest. But what about those who have serious charges against them? Should they be denied the immunity afforded to other citizens—that a person is presumed innocent till proven guilty? Observes Reddy: "I do not believe that we should deny them this. Quite apart from the unfairness of it, the fact remains that the conviction rate for even those charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) is about four per cent."
He suggests a day-to-day emergency trial of all those elected to Parliament or state legislatures who have cases relating to heinous crimes pending against them. "But while this may prove to be a deterrent for criminals, the guilty will surely try and exploit the same legal loopholes that have got them this far—witnesses will still be intimidated and evidence tampered with because the social conditions remain the same," he adds.
Professor C.P. Bhambri of New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University agrees that emergency trials for elected representatives is an avenue worth exploring but points out that political parties—with their own organisation in a shambles—are eventually to blame for giving tickets to criminals. "It is not as if politicians have suddenly discovered a propensity for crime; this phenomenon can be directly attributed to the fact that criminals whose money and muscle power was used by politicians to fight elections have taken over from their erstwhile mentors."
THE trend of criminals rising to prominence in parties seems to be linked to the breakdown of party organisations at the lower rungs. Political parties are taking the shortcut by choosing candidates who are certain winners. And often the 'winner' is dependent on the 'dada' in the constituency for resources. Points out V.B. Singh of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi: "Party organisations have been ignored at the lower rungs where normal recruitment is not taking place. In the absence of a party base, the victory of a candidate contesting is dependent on personnel and resources. And in a majority of cases, it is only the local goonda who can muster these up, especially at short notice."
Also, criminals have found a safe haven in politics. Not only do they enjoy the immunity and privileges of being elected representatives but also build up a do-gooder Robin Hood image. This new avatar, according to Vyalar Ravi, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee chief and Rajya Sabha MP, serves as a "convenient shield to further caste, religious or regional interests".
He sees criminalisation of politics as a failure of the political system and, more specifically, of political parties. "Other parties, especially cadre-based parties such as the BJP and the CPI(M), are much worse because, emboldened by a willing cadre, they are encouraged to use strong-arm tactics. And the caste-based parties of north India are the pits. But look at the Congress. Even we have become a nominated party of sycophants. In such a scenario, the criminal elements will gain ascendancy," he admits.
A viable solution, it is agreed, will require legislative and executive initiative. According to police officials, besides electoral reforms, the Police Act, 1861, needs to be amended to give more teeth to probes against politicians. Legal reforms are required to stop the misuse of law enforcement agencies by politicians and bureaucrats.
The existing legal safeguards against infiltrating the system seem rather inadequate. Points out N.K. Singh, former CBI joint director: "What is a criminal record, after all? Someone who has been convicted? Or do you debar a person who is facing trial, or investigation? All these things need to be debated." He cites the case of Sanjay Gandhi and V.C. Shukla, who, despite being convicted in the Kissa Kursi Ka case by the lower court, were permitted to fight general elections because their appeal was pending in a higher court.
But should political parties not be more selective while distributing tickets? Senior leaders such as D. Raja of the CPI and K.L. Sharma of the BJP assert that it is the primary responsibility of the parties to ensure that those with criminal antecedents are refused tickets. Says Raja: "Our party believes that politics is about ethics and upholding certain values in public service. How can somebody charged with rape or murder do that? This is a problem that can be nipped in the bud if parties do not give tickets to such elements." K.L. Sharma, while admitting that some undesirable elements have been allowed to join the BJP, agrees that "even a cloud of suspicion" over a potential candidate should be enough for the party to deny him a ticket.
It is one thing for individual politicians to issue statements. But it is left to sociologists like Ashis Nandy to drag the issue away from platitudes. Says he: "On the premise that it is the criminals who have turned politicians, the only hope of preventing this process is to ensure transparent, free and fair intra-party elections so that noncriminals at least stand a chance." These elections, he points out, will have to be conducted under strict vigil and those parties which don't comply should be derecognised by the Election Commission.
However, the Election Commission is not at the moment proposing any measure to check the entry of criminals into politics. According to Election Commissioner M. S. Gill, there are enough laws to check the trend. He says it is for the courts to expedite cases pending against any MLA or MP.
While politicians of all hues maintain they are not pleading helplessness, they do say that the people are the final arbitrators. But then, as Singh puts it, "it is easy to blame the electorate. The fact is that there is not much to choose from between the candidates put up by various political parties." So is there any light at the end of the tunnel? At the moment it looks like a bleak scenario. Only public pressure and the political will and courage to cleanse the system can save Indian polity from the rot that has set in.