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While our political establishment has come to expect the EC to be a fair umpire, that as many as 30 per cent of our parliamentarians should have criminal antecedents is disquieting. The country has reposed faith in the Election Commission (EC) to deliver free and fair elections and conduct each election-be it to Parliament or the state assemblies-on time. Unlike many countries, elections in India have invariably resulted in orderly transfers of power. This is no small achievement. Indeed, our electoral management is the envy of many countries.
While our political establishment has, quite rightly, come to expect the EC to be a fair umpire and deliver a level-playing field, that as many as 30 per cent of our parliamentarians should have criminal antecedents is disquieting. Why should we allow lawbreakers to become our lawmakers?
Five states are currently in the electoral fray: UP, Manipur, Goa, Punjab and Uttarakhand. In Punjab and Goa, where polling is over, almost 15 per cent of the candidates have criminal records. This information comes from the candidates' own affidavits, in compliance with the Supreme Court's orders. These orders of 2002-03 culminated after stout opposition from the political establishment. Today, election watchdogs analyse these affidavits relating to declared wealth, educational qualifications and, importantly, criminal records, if any.
This phenomenon of lawbreakers turning overnight into lawmakers has had a chequered history. Till the early 1980s, many contestants relied on local 'mafias' to garner votes. Soon enough, local warlords realised that helping others to win was not the solution to their problems. They offered themselves as candidates. Many were welcomed into the political fold because they demonstrated their 'winnability'. Power and criminality now began to feed upon one another with the result that criminality within political ranks rose. Studies show when 'muscle' is combined with 'money', the chances of winning increase dramatically over 'clean' candidates.
As chief election commissioner, I ran into the leader of a major political party. I asked why his political party nominated criminals. I pointed to MLAs with heinous criminal cases pending against them, including murder, rape and kidnapping. Was there a solution to this problem? He replied, "When elections are on the horizon, our only 'mantra' is 'winnability'." What I continue to find surprising is that even the political leaders who have publicly spoken against giving party tickets to those with criminal backgrounds are strangely silent in the face of this growing malaise. Why should voters wish to elect 'criminals'? There appears to be a combination of factors. Voters appear to trust a criminal especially where caste, religion, region or ethnicity are contributing factors. Others perceive the institutions of the state to have broken down (or as beyond their reach) when it comes to the settlement of their fundamental problems on issues relating to land, irrigation, power, justice and problems within the social structure. The criminal justice system is seen to have failed the 'little man'; witness the plight of our undertrials, who have no one to represent them in a court of law. It is widely recognised that the courts are clogged with over 30 million cases. Therefore, the local 'don' turned politician is able to dispense a rough and ready justice and successfully intervene with the administration.
The EC has written to successive governments that those charged by a court of law with heinous offences, punishable by five years of imprisonment or more, be debarred from contesting elections. The EC believes this to be a reasonable restriction. However, various parliamentary committees have turned this down, instead offering the establishment of special courts and day-to-day trials. No such mechanism is in sight. The conclusion is inescapable. 'Winnability' continues to prevail over clean politics.
(Navin B Chawla is a former chief election commissioner of India)