The Law­less Law­maker

India Today - - UPFRONT - By Navin B. Chawla The writer is a for­mer chief elec­tion com­mis­sioner of In­dia

Tthe 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-to­day tri­als. No such mech­a­nism is in sight. The conclusion is in­escapable. ‘Winnabil­ity’ con­tin­ues to pre­vail over clean pol­i­tics. he 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

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