The Supreme Court’s recent landmark judgment, which ensures that convicted politicians will now get immediately disqualified from contesting in elections or holding office, marks an end to almost a two decade long tug-of-war between political parties and the Election Commission over the right of electoral candidacy to tainted candidates. While it is surely a landmark judgment and it’s not fair to be critical about everything, yet, the board is split into equal halves in their opinion towards the SC ruling, as pros and cons of the judgment seem to weigh equally.
On the one hand, just because a case is hanging against a candidate, it is grossly unfair for the person to be assumed disqualified (due to the hyped up fear of future conviction) – as the allegation could well be fabricated. As it often happens in the political domain, a candidate could be debarred based on false allegation brought about by vested interests to stonewall him from standing in an election. It’s quite easy and simple: just file a case against him, tom tom the fact that the candidate could end up getting convicted, and he is done for good.
Morally, it’s our Constitutional right to remain innocent until proved guilty. And if that doctrine is applicable to all Indian citizens, it is only fair that the same applies to the politicians as well. It is not that the SC judgment goes against this. But the scrutiny that politicians will face now, especially the honest ones who have trumped up cases against them, could well be unfair. The attempts over the years to enforce stringent rules against political candidates has been to stem the growing criminalization of Indian politics and to debilitate the nefarious nexus of politicians with goons and unlawful activities. But I have to admit, in this attempt to secure a fine balance between being just and unjust, it is debatable how far the strings should be pulled in curbing criminal activities in politics and how much latitude should be given to electoral candidates. The fact also is that a mind-numbing high percentage of Indian politicians have got criminal cases pending against them, most of which are genuine, but they are not convicted due to their muscle power.
The SC ruling also makes the prospect of money and muscle power becoming increasingly in vogue in Indian public life, as often the outcome of investigations are manipulated by ruling parties to their benefit, where evidences are hushed up or conjured up based on the ruling parties’ benevolence. I should mention, all this doesn’t mean a truly innocent person would be punished just because an allegation is laid against him. At the same time, the leeway given by the SC can be a shot in the arms of politicians and particularly the candidates belonging to the ruling government. And characteristically, parties are being generally silent on the judgment and are giving only guarded statements on the issue.
A large number of ‘eminent’ politicians have faced or currently face criminal charges. From our former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to former and some present Chief Ministers of Punjab, Bihar, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Jharkhand, all have faced charges that range from misappropriation of money, cheating to other illegal activities. Political parties of all sizes, spread and ideologies are affected by this issue, and these parties include national parties like Indian National Congress and BJP, to regional ones like Akali Dal and Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD). But then, this powerful bunch of people can easily win a pending case eventually on the strength of their money and muscle power and also with their high level contacts. There is hardly any case in India where a powerful politician is convicted and punished in the court of law! Comparatively, while there a number of examples of Chinese lawmakers being incarcerated and even executed on account of their corrupt practices, Indian counterparts are mostly acquitted or are under the blessings of never ending pendency of charges brought against them. In other words, there is quite some possibility of honest politicians without the muscle power being affected by the SC judgment than politicians and ruling parties who shrewdly control investigating authorities like CBI that are supposed to provide evidence to court. In this light, the SC ruling is perhaps skewed. It is exactly what powerful politicians had been waiting for and may work diametrically opposite to an attempted fight to root out corruption by our political masters.
There is clearly no love lost between the SC and politicians. One cannot forget the attempt by the Law Ministry to change the system of appointment of SC judges from the present system to a participatory process involving both Executives and Judiciary; that was clearly a subversive attempt to disrupt the neutral image of the Supreme Court. This is apart from various attempts of politicians to stifle a very impartial institution like SC when it comments on political issues. All these are being done to protect tainted politicians and office holders from being prosecuted. Scams like 2G scam, Coalgate, and the very recent Railway scam are increasingly becoming an embarrassment and an impediment for the current government. It’s the same case with opposition parties, which in their ruling states are culprits of the same kind of scandals and corruption. The essence of democracy that politicians of yesteryears, like Gandhi, Nehru and Patel stood for – to serve the country’s people and provide them clean, healthy and corrupt-free governance – has long been relegated to the trashcan.
Under these circumstances, in the current state, the SC ruling is more of tokenism rather than being a judicial revolution. Not only will it allow powerful politicians to settle their scores, but in long run, it will see itself being misused and abused. Today, elections in rural belts are mostly fought on caste and communal equations, while the integrity of the candidates usually takes the back seat. Where hunger, social and caste discrimination, education and basic dignity of life are killing issues, clean legal records of electoral candidates are hardly points of contention. These are subject of discussion in the drawing rooms of state capitals and never in the impoverished villages of the hinterlands. Considering all this, SC should, in the course of time, come out with a more foolproof and holistic legislation in order to make the political corridors relatively cleaner and ethical, and a fair entry field for honest politicians without money and muscle power. But then, as they say, something is better than nothing. This one law may show the way for the future, but in the case of the Indian political system, the less said the better.