By Sambhav Sharma
Bihar will be voting in the first phase of elections on October 28 under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic with new protocols to follow before casting the ballot. But Bihar’s notorious and perennial problem of legislators with criminal records continue.
Of the 1,064 candidates, who are contesting in the first phase, 328 candidates, that is 31 percent, have declared themselves that they have criminal cases against them and 244 that is 23 percent have declared serious criminal cases against them.
This fact and many others have come out in the joint report of the Bihar Election Watch (BEW) and the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR).
Of the 328 candidates with criminal records, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has the highest number of 30, the BJP has 21, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) has 24 the Congress has 12, the Janata Dal (United) has 15 and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has 8.
A better picture emerges if one looks at the candidates with declared criminal cases against the total candidates from the respective parties. The RJD has 73 percent criminal candidates in the first phase, the BJP has 72 percent criminal candidates, the LJP has 59 percent, the Congress 57 percent, the JD(U) 43 percent, and the BSP 31 percent criminal candidates.
Supreme Court on Criminalisation of Politics
It is again moot to note that just this February, the Supreme Court directed political parties to state reasons for the selection of candidates with pending criminal cases by posting them on their websites. The bench of Justice RF Nariman and Justice S. Ravindra Bhat asked the parties to also list why they could not select other candidates without criminal antecedents.
If a political party fails to comply with the order’s directions, it would be seen as being in contempt of the court order. While this was expected to demotivate candidates with a criminal background to enter the fray, the data from BEW-ADR above indicates that it has not stopped parties. The ball, as directed by the Supreme Court’s February 2020 order, is very clearly in the Election Commission’s court.
National Election Fund: A way forward?
Former Chief Election Commissioner TS Krishnamurthy said that making voters aware of candidates with criminal antecedents has its limitations. He said most leaders with criminal records enjoy the judicial delay and adversely contribute to democracy. “Such people continue to use their muscle power to overrule the voice of the people. Political parties seem to be less serious about it,” he said.
Krishnamurthy suggested that candidates, who have been chargesheeted six months before the polls, could be suspended, albeit temporarily, from contesting the election if they are found to have indulged in serious offences. He also said money power should also be curbed from influencing elections.
“We need to have a National Election Fund with a corpus for 10 years where corporates can contribute money for which are given a 100 percent tax exemptions. This is how publically funded polls could be contested and even a poor man can independently contest. We need to reduce the money and muscle power from polls to breed good quality democracy in India,” he said.
Former Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath emphasised putting the information in the public domain so that voters can make a better choice. The system, the courts, the Election Commission, all want the criminal elements don’t get encouragement to come to power, he added.
There are two ways in which candidates with criminal background can be barred or discouraged. One is through legislation but for whatever reason, the legislation has not been made. In the absence of legislation, the next best way is to inform the people of candidates with criminal background.
Banaras Hindu University’s Political Science department Professor Sanjay Srivastava said the chance of a candidate with criminal background winning the polls is more in the first-past-the-post system than in proportional representation and other systems. “The corruption in politics is more dangerous than the criminalisation of politics. The MLAs/MPs who have corruption charges or are involved in the graft are more dangerous for a democracy than petty or major criminals,” he said.
The way forward would be to let voters decide whom they want to choose and the government ensures a free and fair decision, said Prof Srivastava.
A tall ask for the Election Commission?
It is mandatory for political parties at the Central and state level to upload on their website detailed information regarding candidates with pending criminal cases including nature of the offences. Political parties will also have to give reasons for such selection and why other individuals without criminal antecedents could not be selected as candidates.
If a political party fails to submit such a compliance report with the Election Commission, the Election Commission shall bring such non-compliance by the political party concerned to the notice of the Supreme Court as being in contempt of the court orders/directions.
Read Supreme Court ordersupreme-court-Judgement_13-Feb-2020