May 24, 2020
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Towards A Cleaner Poll

An eminent panel identifies 72 Lok Sabha candidates facing criminal cases

Towards A Cleaner Poll

AS election-related violence registers a dramatic spurt, political parties across the board maintain a deafening silence. Twenty people die in pre-election violence in Tripura, CPI(ML) candidate Anil Kumar Barua is shot dead at an election meeting in Dibrugarh, UP minister Raja Bhaiya threatens policemen on election duty in Pratapgarh and the state government springs to his defence when the Election Commission bans him from the district. In Gonda, BJP nominee Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh storms into a police station and manhandles constables while in Banda, the area’s most feared dacoit canvasses openly for the BSP nominee.

A stark testimony to the criminalisation of politics, to a system helpless to keep the Shahabuddins, the Brij Bhushans and the D.P. Yadavs out of Parliament. The Election Commission declares its hands are bound by law: the Representation of People Act allows it to debar candidates convicted of certain crimes but it cannot stop those under trial for multiple murders or rape, for corruption or theft from the public exchequer, from sitting in the country’s highest forum.

 In consultation with a panel of eminent persons—former Supreme Court judge Kuldip Singh, former home secretary Madhav Godbole, former Maharashtra governor C. Subramanium and activist Swami Agnivesh, Outlook compiled a list of 72 such candidates who have criminal proceedings pending against them and, in the opinion of the panel, ought not to contest polls.

It is by no means an exhaustive list. The time between the lists of candidates being released and the first day of polling being so short and the legwork involved so laborious, only 500 of the 4,693 candidates in the fray could be investigated. The first, preliminary list was drawn up after a scrutiny of candidates. The second, with over 150 names, was prepared after establishing that FIRs had been registered against the persons who figured. The third and final list comprised those who fit into the stringent criteria ( see box ) laid down by the panel. For instance, the list for Madhya Pradesh, which had 15 persons against whom there were chargesheets and/or FIRs, was whittled down to seven. Some names were dropped for lack of information—a Bihar minister known to have a long criminal record was excluded as details of only one case were available.

The police and state administration were by and large uncooperative, often as protective of the dubious candidates as the political parties themselves. Superintendents of police outright refused to part with details, or did not take telephone calls from correspondents once the purpose was stated. At times, they attempted to mislead correspondents, giving nominees a clean chit when in fact they were facing criminal charges.

As Justice Kuldip Singh pointed out, government servants facing criminal proceedings are placed under suspension until cleared by the courts. The same yardstick should apply to politicians, he maintains. When the then Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav was chargesheeted by the CBI in the fodder scam case, all political parties demanded his resignation. Yet, they have given tickets to candidates facing similar or even more serious charges. The Samata Party, for example, has nominated two persons facing multiple chargesheets in murder cases. The Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav, who castigates the media for giving the SP a "goonda party" image, has not balked at giving tickets to known criminals: Pappu Yadav, Ramakant Yadav and Rajju Maharaj, among others.

The BJP has given tickets to eight persons accused in the Babri Masjid demolition case, including party chief L.K. Advani, Vija-yaraje Scindia, Vinay Katiyar, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti. They face criminal charges under section 153-A of the IPC (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, etc) which, if upheld, would automatically ensure their being debarred from contesting elections for six years (section 8, RP Act 1951). And the Congress, while denying a ticket to Narasimha Rao on the Babri Masjid issue, has nominated Satish Sharma, Bhajan Lal and Balram Jakhar, all of whom have been chargesheeted under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

 Swami Agnivesh observes that criminalisation of politics is a subject for debate but does not figure on the agenda of any party. As Godbole, who resigned from service in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition, points out, "a political will is needed" and there isn’t any. He also suggests that the electorate be fully informed about the backgrounds of the candidates. The EC could use government machinery to collect such information and also make it mandatory for candidates to disclose details of the cases pending against them, which could then be made public.

Finally, the panel suggests that the Election Commission should effect changes in the model code of conduct to exclude candidates who have criminal proceedings pending against them. And if the EC cannot do this, Parliament must.

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