Convicts in India have to be kept off the ballot by law. Crooks must not be allowed to become people’s representatives. But why do political parties pick election candidates with criminal charges against them? In moments of candour, leaders are known to admit that popular support is what counts above all. Candidacy tickets are awarded on the basis of who is likely to win at the hustings. A slightly more respectable reason offered in cases of unproven allegations against politicians is that their fate is best left to the so-called “people’s court". Whatever justifications they have must now officially be made public. On Thursday, the Supreme Court directed all political parties to publish all criminal cases pending against their poll candidates in newspapers and on their own online interfaces, be it websites or social media sites. Crucially, they must also put out an explanation other than “winnability" for such choices. If they fail to do this within 48 hours of the selection of candidates, and do not submit a compliance report within 24 hours of their nomination papers being filed, which happens later, the Election Commission of India would have to lodge a contempt petition against them. This order should act as a blow against opacity. Whether it will also keep legislation out of the reach of law-breakers who are yet to be judged guilty is much harder to assess.
At the very least, the court’s order is sure to make political parties less cavalier in their approach to ticket distribution. Far too often, party leaders have resorted to whataboutery, pointing at rival parties for similar behaviour when asked about their support for those who ought to be in the dock instead of a legislative house. That will no longer wash. This is important because keeping out those held guilty by a court has not done enough to solve the problem. Under Indian law, a person convicted and sentenced for a period of not less than two years is disqualified from contesting elections from the date of conviction and for an additional six years after his or her release. But India’s justice system grinds so slowly that it’s possible for criminals with clout or political patronage to evade the legal consequences of their crimes for decades on end, if not the entire span of their careers. Such a scenario doesn’t lend itself to clean politics, to say the least. According to an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-government organization, of the 70 new legislators elected to the Delhi assembly on 11 February, as many as 61% have declared criminal cases against them, with 53% facing serious charges. Five years ago, 34% MLAs had declared criminal cases against them. Likewise, in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, 43% of all winners had declared criminal cases against them, up from 34% in 2014 and 30% in 2009.
Being charged with a crime, however, is not the same as being guilty. People in public life are vulnerable to false charges as part of smear campaigns against them by rivals. Police forces in India are not independent of political control and doubts hover over the autonomy of investigative agencies as well. This being so, perhaps it should not shock us that the proportion of politicians facing criminal charges is so high. Police reforms are sorely needed. Until we have a law enforcement system that is demonstrably upright and just, parties can get away by telling voters that their candidates are victims of slander.