New Delhi: The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) triggered a fresh face-off between the executive and the judiciary after the Union cabinet signed off on an ordinance on Tuesday to undo a Supreme Court order that disqualified convicted lawmakers and legislators.
The government move could backfire as it may not go down well with the electorate, especially urban voters, ahead of state polls that lead up to the general election next year.
Analysts warn that the hastily-approved ordinance could undermine the credibility of the entire political class. At an all-party meeting held before the monsoon session began, political leaders had expressed concern over the Supreme Court’s ruling and backed the government in its plan to reverse it through a new law.
However, when the Representation of the People (Second Amendment) Bill, 2013, was introduced in the Rajya Sabha, some provisions eluded consensus.
As a result, lawmakers convicted in criminal cases with imprisonment of two years or more faced the prospect of immediate disqualification. An ordinance with amendments to the existing Act will prevent this.
The inclusion of a provision is expected to make it clear that a convicted member shall continue to take part in proceedings of Parliament or state legislatures, but they shall neither be entitled to vote nor draw a salary or allowances until their appeal is finally decided by the courts.
The ordinance is expected to make it clear that if an appeal is admitted in a higher court within three months of conviction, the member can continue his tenure, said a person familiar with the development.
According to a senior Congress leader, it was a “political decision” and the urgency was to placate Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad, who is awaiting the apex court’s verdict in a case relating to the alleged siphoning off of Bihar government funds meant to feed livestock when Prasad was chief minister.
The RJD, which has been a friendly ally of the UPA, is likely to contest alongside the Congress in the next Lok Sabha election.
Prem Chand Gupta, senior leader of the RJD and a Rajya Sabha member, denied that the party had exerted any political pressure to speed up the ordinance. “This is a hypothetical argument. The judgment date (in Yadav’s case) is 30 September. How does one know what is going to happen? I do not know why this is being made an issue. If someone is held guilty, then he or she must get a chance to approach a higher court..,” he said.
A Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, Rashid Masood has recently been convicted in a corruption case.
Once the punishment is pronounced by a Central Bureau of Investigation court next month, Masood faces the prospect of losing his membership of the Upper House.
He could be the first member of Parliament to lose his seat after the apex court verdict. Once the ordinance is promulgated, it will override the 10 July order of the apex court.
“The core issue is of criminalization of politics versus docket explosion. While the government has not come with clean hands as it has shied (away) from debating the issue, the Supreme Court has also been short-sighted,” said Rahul Singh, an assistant professor at the National Law School of India University.
“The problem is that of criminal trials running into years and the possibility of the decision being overturned by higher courts. The basic principle of presumption of innocence is challenged if the window of appeal is not considered. This is an attempt to undo one wrong (of criminalization) with another (barring convicted lawmakers). Structural solutions are required for such issues and a band-aid does not suffice,” he added.
Balveer Arora, chairman of the Centre for Multilevel Federalism, a New Delhi-based think tank, said there are people in all political parties who would benefit from the ordinance.
“The haste with which the government moved is likely to put the credibility of all the political parties at stake. There is no urgent situation that the government had to issue an ordinance without waiting for the winter session to debate it and pass it,” he said.
The Congress defended the cabinet’s action while the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reacted cautiously.
“Ordinance is not an undemocratic act by any government. It is not a back-door method. It has to have the nod of Parliament. It will go before Parliament in the very next session,” Congress spokesperson P.C. Chacko told reporters.
BJP vice-president Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said: “This is a very serious issue which will be debated within the party at length again before the Parliament session. In our democracy, political parties use investigation agencies to settle political scores and it has become a common practice. But BJP strongly believes that people who are involved in heinous crimes must not be spared and they should not be allowed to continue in public life or hold important office and such people should be immediately disqualified,”
The Supreme Court on 5 September rejected the government’s appeal to review its order barring convicted lawmakers from continuing in Parliament or state assemblies. Terming the 10 July judgement “well considered”, a bench of justices A.K. Patnaik and S.J. Mukhopadhaya has said it was “not inclined” to grant a review of the court’s decision, which struck down a provision in the Representation of the People Act allowing lawmakers to continue in office for three months even after being convicted. If an appeal was filed in the interim, the lawmaker could continue till the appeal was decided.
Monalisa and Anuja, and PTI contributed to this story.