New Delhi

India’s democracy functions mainly through political parties. Strangely the word “political party” is not found in our constitution. Strengthening our democracy requires that we have parties, which function robustly, democratically and transparently. Currently there are no laws that govern the functioning of parties, unlike regulations that exist for say, companies, temples, trusts, hospitals or even schools.

Parties fight elections and those that win the people’s mandate form the government, and wield tremendous power. But fighting elections has become a hugely expensive affair. There is also increasing instance of people with serious criminal cases becoming legislators. The growing menace of money and muscle power is like a dark cloud over India’s democracy. 

The nexus of politics and the underworld was first documented in the Vohra Committee in 1993. Since then several committees have documented this troubling phenomenon. The Law Commission’s report of 1999 provided a comprehensive framework of electoral and political reforms to cleanse politics. Even the recent Justice Verma Committee report commissioned in the wake of the brutal Delhi rape had a full chapter on electoral reforms.

The Election Commission too has written several reports to the government asking that these reforms be implemented. At the very least we should have a law imposing strict transparency in the funding and expenditure of parties, and prohibit criminal elements from entering the electoral fray. But in the past two decades lawmakers in parliament have not found the time to pass the necessary legislation to curb money and muscle power in elections. In the absence of legislative action, citizens and voters have been forced to knock on the doors of the judiciary for remedy. 

In response to a PIL by the Association for Democratic Reforms, the Supreme Court in 2003 ordered that candidates disclose details of their wealth and pending criminal cases, if any, before the election. The logic of disclosing criminal cases, was that if the candidate had been convicted of those same charges, the candidate becomes automatically disqualified under the Representation of People’s Act 1951 (RPA). 

But even after conviction, if the case is in appeal in higher courts, a process which can linger for years, then there is no bar. While the case languishes, the candidate can enjoy his full term in the legislature. This protection is strengthened in the RPA for elected persons, who gain immunity during their tenure. It was this anomaly that the Supreme Court struck down in its historic judgment on July 3. Henceforth any conviction, even in a lower court means instant disqualification. 

The SC only plugged a loophole which gave an unfair and dangerous immunity to elected convicts. Instead of welcoming this cleansing step, the political establishment is crying foul over the alleged trespassing of their legislative turf.

The author is a founder-member of the Association for Democratic Reforms.

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