A lawmaker with a criminal record is an anathema to parliamentary democracy. It is incongruous for protectors of democracy to be violators of law. Criminalisation of politics has been a major stumbling block in the path of political reforms in India. The Central government’s recent decision to set up 12 special fast-track courts to expeditiously try pending criminal cases against 1,581 lawmakers is a welcome step to clean up the political system. This will help restore public faith in electoral democracy. The new mechanism, if used effectively, will help purge legislatures of the criminally-tainted members and also send a strong message that the custodians of democracy are not above law. It was the Supreme Court, which pushed the idea of special courts to fast-track the cases. In a significant judgment in 2013, the apex court quashed a statutory provision that allowed convicted MPs/MLAs to avoid disqualification by securing a stay order from a higher court. In 2014, the court ordered day-to-day hearings in trial courts to complete trials within a year of framing charges but the executive failed to implement it. Now that the Union government has decided to establish special courts, it is hoped that pendency will be cleared. It is a great opportunity to rid the politics of criminal elements. It is in the best interests of the recognised political parties to clean up their houses so that they can attract dedicated professionals from various walks of life into their fold and help bring fresh ideas to the table.

The success of the new mechanism will largely depend on the commitment by the State governments and the diligence of the local police and the prosecution in filing charge sheets and taking the cases to their logical end without coming under political pressure. According to an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a civil society group, as many as 1,581 lawmakers across the country were facing prosecution in 13,500 cases in 2014. This number could have only increased over time. As per the election affidavits, 1,353 of the 4,078 MLAs and 228 MPs have declared criminal cases pending against them. According to the report, about 34% of the winning candidates in the 16th Lok Sabha were facing criminal charges as against 30% in 2009 and 24% in 2004. The immediate focus should be on clearing the cases that involve serious offences like murder, crimes against women, corruption and attempt to murder. However, utmost care must be taken while dealing with the cases routinely filed against politicians for participating in protests. In the interests of probity in public life, political parties should themselves refuse tickets to the tainted aspirants.

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