New Delhi

By Jagdeep S. Chhokar,

The final episode of Satyamev Jayate, the popular Sunday TV show hosted by actor Aamir Khan, on March 30 focussed on criminalization of politics. It presented data from the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 and 2009. What shocked many viewers was that the number of people elected to the Lok Sabha and who had criminal cases pending against them, as declared in their affidavits, had increased from 125 in 2004 to 162 in 2009.

Now for 2014. An analysis of the affidavits of 1,566 candidates, of the 1,594 who are contesting Phases 1 to 4, reveals that 278 (or 18 percent) have declared pending criminal cases against themselves.

Given this situation, what should or can a voter do? This represents the classical Hobson's choice.

The expressions "criminalization of politics" and "politicization of crime" were introduced in the Indian political lexicon in 1993 by the then union home secretary, N.N. Vohra, who is now the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, in what has come to be called the Vohra Committee Report. This report was the first official document that specifically pointed to the phenomenon of criminal elements influencing the country's political and electoral processes, thereby endangering the essence of democratic functioning.

The theme of reducing, if not completely eliminating, the influence of criminals and criminalization of the political and electoral processes was subsequently picked up by the Law Commission of India, which extensively commented on it in its 170th report - Reform of the Electoral Laws - submitted in 1999. The report contains many significant and worthwhile recommendations to reduce and control the impact of criminalization on the electoral and political processes, but no worthwhile action was taken on this.

This issue then engaged the attention of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (NCRWC), which made worthwhile suggestions in 2001 but again to no avail.

The Election Commission made its recommendations in 2004, as did the Second Administrative Reforms Commission in 2008. Finally the Justice J.S. Verma Committee, set up in the aftermath of the horrendous Dec 2012 Delhi gang-rape to recommend amendments to criminal law, included a separate 42-page chapter (Chapter 13) on electoral reforms in its report in 2013.

The government referred this Chapter 13 to the Law Commission while continuing to ignore the panel's 170th report which had been lying with it since 1999. The Law Commission, at the request of the Supreme Court, gave its fresh report on two specific issues this February 2014.

In the meanwhile, there was a lot of effort and action by public-spirited citizens and civil society organizations, some of which resulted in significant judgments by the Supreme Court and the Central Information Commission. In all these instances, the entire political establishment got together to prevent all attempts at reducing the impact of criminalization on politics.

The net outcome is that political parties continue to give tickets to people with criminal cases against them, under the fallacious belief of their high "winnability". This is what creates the Hobson's choice for the voters. Startling, and incontrovertible, proof of this can already be seen in the data relating to the first four phases of the Lok Sabha elections.

Of the 111 constituencies going to polls, 54 have three or more candidates who have declared criminal cases pending against them. These are what I call "Red Alert" constituencies.

In previous elections, on on average, there used to be two main political parties in most states. There were a few states that had more than two parties that were serious contenders for power. The situation in the current election is somewhat different inasmuch as there are possibly three parties in contention. It is rare that more than three parties are serious contenders for power.

In this scenario, if three or more candidates have self-declared criminal cases pending against them and they happen to represent the three major political parties in that state, what choice do the voters have?

This is what the situation was till September 27, 2013, when the Supreme Court, on a 2004 petition of the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), directed the Election Commission to provide a "None Of The Above" (NOTA) button on the electronic voting machines (EVMs) "so that the voters who come to the polling booth and decide not to vote for any of the candidates in the fray are able to exercise their right not to vote while maintaining their right of secrecy".

The NOTA option, thus, provides the voters a way out of the Hobson's choice. But two things are important here.

One, a lot more needs to be done to achieve NOTA's full potential.

Two, NOTA should not be the first choice of any voter. All of us, citizens/voters must find out all we can about all the candidates contesting from our constituencies. We must make sincere attempts to choose a candidate that we think would be best out of those on offer. If, after all that effort, we come to the conclusion that none of the candidates fulfill what we are looking for in our elected representative, it is only then that we should press the NOTA button.

While making the most important decision as citizens of the country, we must not vote for candidates who have self-declared criminal cases pending against them.

(06.04.2014 - Jagdeep S. Chhokar, a founder-member of NGO Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), is a former director in-charge of the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad. The views expressed are personal He can be contacted at[email protected])

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