The Supreme Court’s directive to political parties to upload on their websites the details of criminal cases against their candidates and the reasons for nominating them is a welcome move. This must be seen as part of a larger mission to clean up the system and allow voters to make an informed choice. Flagging alarming rise in criminalisation of politics, the apex court has rightly emphasised that winnability factor cannot justify choosing tainted candidates to fight elections. This is not the first time that the top court is issuing a directive to the executive or the Election Commission on this matter. The guidelines issued by the court in 2018, relating to disclosure of criminal antecedents by candidates, are not being followed properly. The latest order makes it mandatory for parties to upload the details, not only on their websites but also on social media and newspapers within 48 hours of selecting the candidates. The law is clear on debarring those convicted in a criminal case from continuing as an elected representative or from contesting an election. Every candidate contesting an Assembly or Lok Sabha election is required to file an affidavit listing the cases pending against them. The contents of this affidavit are often highlighted by civil society groups through the media. While this exposure has to a certain extent embarrassed political parties and candidates, there is little empirical proof that it has reduced their chances of winning an election. Often, political parties take cover under “law will take its own course” argument while defending their candidates facing criminal cases.
As per the Election Commission records, as many as 225 MPs in the present Lok Sabha had criminal cases pending against them at the time of contesting the elections. Of them, 16 candidates did not disclose this mandatory information, thereby violating the 2018 order of the Supreme Court. It is disturbing to note that the number of MPs facing criminal charges has risen from 24% in 2004 to 43% in 2019. It is incongruous for protectors of democracy to be violators of law. Criminalisation of politics and influence of money and muscle power have been the bane of Indian democracy and remain the major stumbling blocks in the path of political reforms. It is in the best interests of political parties to cleanse the system so that professionals from various walks of life can join politics and bring fresh ideas to the table. The existing rules of the Representation of Peoples Act disqualify politicians sentenced to a jail term of two years or more from contesting elections for six years from the date of release from prison while those under trial continue to be eligible to contest elections.