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India’s Supreme Court last week enlarged the scope of the legal framework, much of it designed by itself, to reduce the scope for political corruption. 

Money power and muscle power have been identified since long as the bane of electoral politics in this country, which, by virtue of its population, is the world’s largest democracy.

The Representation of the People Act, enacted in 1951, ahead of the first general elections, provides that persons convicted of certain charges, including corruption, will incur certain disqualifications. The law has undergone some revision since it was first enacted but undesirable persons continue to be elected. 

In 1999, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), set up by a group of professors of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, initiated public interest litigation which resulted in a Supreme Court judgment directing all candidates to file affidavits disclosing information relating to their educational qualifications, involvement in criminal cases, if any, and the family’s assets. 

Since then all candidates have been filing affidavits on the lines mentioned by the court and the authorities have been promptly posting them on the web. But there has been no improvement in the quality of the elected representatives. On the comtrary, there are indications of deterioration.

After analysing the affidavits filed by those elected in the last three elections, the ADR reported that the number of Lok Sabha members with criminal cases had gone up from 24 per cent in 2004 to 30 per cent in 2009 and to 34 per cent in 2014. 

Over one-third of the 282 members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party were accused in criminal cases when the party picked them to contest the elections, and over one-fifth were facing serious charges. Of the 18 members of BJP ally Shiv Sena 15 were involved in criminal cases.

All four members of the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal and four of the five of the Nationalist Congress Party were facing criminal charges. Congress MPs had a comparatively low criminal record: 18 per cent were involved in cases, and those facing serious charges were only seven per cent. 

Another ADR report said comparison of affidavits showed that the assets of 165 MPs who won re-election in 2014 had risen, on an average, by 137 per cent in their previous term. 

In 2013, The Supreme Court, modifying a disqualification clause, ruled that a member of Parliament or of a state legislature will lose his seat immediately if convicted and sentenced to a jail term of two years or more.

Parliament had earlier provided for keeping disqualification in abeyance until the member exhausted the avenues of appeal. The Manmohan Singh government planned to enact legislation to nullify the court verdict but dropped it as Rahul Gandhi was against it.

On Friday the apex court ruled that a member of Parliament or of a State legislature will lose his seat if found to be in possession of assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. It wanted the candidates’ affidavits to include the assets of their dependents, besides those of the spouses.

“If assets of a legislator and his/her associates (spouses and dependents) increase without bearing and relationship to their known sources of income, the only logical inference that can be drawn is that there is some abuse of the legislator’s constitutional office,” it said. 

The court passed the order on a petition filed by Lok Prahari, a non-governmental organisation. It had alleged there has been an increase in the assets of 26 members of the Lok Sabha, 11 of the Rajya Sabha and 257 of state legislatures. 

The Central Board of Direct Taxes, which scrutinised the affidavits of some of the elected members, informed the court that there were discrepancies in the statements of seven Lok Sabha members and 98 MLAs. There was prima facie evidence of huge increase in their assets and the matter needed to be probed further.

While the measures devised by the court may help to remove some corrupt elements, they do not offer a solution to political corruption, which is a systemic problem. When Lalu Prasad in Bihar and Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu were forced to step down they retained their hold on the administration through handpicked chief ministers. While Jayalalithaa chose a trusted colleague to hold the fort for her, Lalu Prasad’s choice was his wife, Rabri Devi. She came to office with no political experience and served as chief minister for six and a half years. 

The public have evinced little interest in verifying claims made by candidates in affidavits. Modi and his Cabinet colleague Smriti Irani have dodged efforts to check their educational qualifications. 

There can be no clean politics while elections are an expensive affair and the voters are not ready to take a close look at the antecedents of candidates seeking election.

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