New Delhi: The Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday refused to bar candidates facing criminal charges from contesting elections, leaving the matter in the hands of Parliament, political parties and politicians.
“We are not in a position to add a disqualification," said Chief Justice Dipak Misra, in a judgement that essentially maintained status quo on the issue.
The court, however, added that Parliament must legislate to ensure that people facing serious criminal cases do not enter the political mainstream.
The court also laid guidelines to curb corruption in politics and ensure that voters are able to make informed choices. It directed candidates to provide details about all criminal cases pending against them. Political parties were asked to publish the criminal antecedents of candidates of their parties on their websites and widely circulate this information on other fora.
At present, a chargesheet does not debar a person from contesting elections and cases usually take years to be decided. As a tentative measure, on 1 November 2017, the apex court directed the centre to set up special fast-track courts to try the more than 1,581 cases pending against legislators across the country. The centre had asked for ₹ 65 lakh for setting up each of these courts, bringing the total to ₹ 7.8 crore for the 12 fast-track courts that have been set up in 11 states.
A Constitution bench headed by Misra was ruling on a batch of petitions, including one by non-governmental organization Public Interest Foundation, seeking disqualification of politicians, including MPs and MLAs, from contesting elections once charges are framed against them.
Among the petitions was one by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson and advocate Ashwini Kumar, challenging the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1951, which bars convicted politicians from contesting elections for six years after having served a jail term. The plea also sought a direction to the centre and the Election Commission (EC) to fix the minimum educational qualifications and an upper age limit for candidates.
The EC’s initial stand in court was that it supported the decriminalization of politics through a lifetime ban on MPs and MLAs who are currently free to contest polls even after being convicted in criminal cases.
The court on Tuesday also ruled against barring legislators from practising as advocates in courts, holding that there was nothing in the Advocates Act, 1961, preventing them from practising.
According to political scientist Milan Vaishnav’s book, When Crime Pays: Money And Muscle In Indian Politics, 24% of MPs had criminal cases pending against them in 2004 and 12% had serious cases registered against them. By 2014 the numbers had risen to 34% and 21%, respectively.