Democracy interrupted: The rising number of criminals in politics

The rising number of elected representatives with criminal backgrounds in Parliament and state legislatures is a matter of deep concern to all law-abiding and right-minded citizens. The increasing trend of criminalisation of politics is dangerous and has steadily been eating into the vitals of our democratic polity along with growing corruption of a humongous nature. This perilous drift needs to be checked both by all political parties as well as the judiciary. Timely corrective measures need to be put in place without any further delay, for the common man to have faith in the fairness of the system. Only a time-bound justice delivery system, firmer steps by the Election Commission of India (EC) and a proper strengthening of relevant laws can cleanse the body politic of this evil.

Fast-tracking the judicial process will weed out the corrupt as well as criminal elements in the political system. It is high time all political parties came together and developed a consensus on keeping criminals — some of them with serious charges including kidnapping, rape, murder, grave corruption and crimes against women — out of the system.

When criminals turn into elected representatives and become law-makers, they pose a serious threat to the functioning of a democratic system. The very future of our democracy gets imperilled when such offenders masquerade as leaders, making a travesty of the entire system. Can we expect the youth to look up to such “leaders” and see role models in them?

We take pride in being the largest democracy, but if we do not correct this fundamental flaw of letting criminals and the corrupt turn into elected representatives, we would have failed the people of this great nation. It is not enough for India to be the world’s largest democracy — it must also evolve into the ideal one. As we assume leadership at several levels on the world stage, it is important for India to showcase itself as a model democracy and the global moral compass.

This increasing trend of criminalisation of politics is linked to political control of state machinery, corruption, vote-bank politics and above all, loopholes in the legal system. Is it fair to expect probity and integrity from the bureaucracy if it is controlled in large measure, by criminals? Good governance gets seriously undermined when, for instance, criminals, gangsters or mafia dons, become the political bosses of bureaucrats and subvert the system to serve their interests. In such a scenario, the bureaucratic system ceases to resist corruption and often embraces it to carry out the diktats of criminal political bosses and also to suit its own ends.

This is a pervasive malaise in our body politic, which is assuming cancerous proportions. As a result, the three main pillars of our democracy, namely, Parliament, judiciary and executive, get progressively weakened, and the fundamental concept of a democratic system gets subverted.

Over the years, there have been some attempts at decriminalising politics and alarm calls raised with regard to the imperative need for reform. The Vohra Committee set up by the Centre in 1993 sounded a note of warning saying that “some political leaders become the leaders of these gangs/armed senas and, over the years, get themselves elected to local bodies, state assemblies and the national Parliament.” This was nearly three decades ago.

The Supreme Court had flagged the issue on several occasions, and in August 2021 observed: “The nation continues to wait and is losing patience.” In 2002, the Court ruled that every candidate contesting election has to declare his criminal and financial records along with educational qualifications. It must be said that mandatory declaration of assets and existing criminal charges in self-sworn affidavits to the EC, prior to elections, has brought in some degree of transparency.

Further, in 2005, the Supreme Court had ruled that a sitting MP or MLA will be disqualified from contesting the election if convicted and sentenced for imprisonment for two years or more by a court of law. In 2014, the apex court accepted the Law Commission recommendations and passed an order directing that trials against sitting MPs and MLAs should be concluded within a year of charges being framed and conducted on a day-to-day basis.

As a follow-up to these directives, in 2017, the Union government started a scheme to establish 12 special courts for a year to fast track the trial of criminal cases against MPs and MLAs. The apex court has since then issued many directions, including asking the Centre to set up a monitoring committee to examine reasons for delay of investigation in these cases.

The number of pending cases continues to be a matter of grave concern, so much so that the Supreme Court had been informed, as per media reports of February 2022, that the number of pending criminal cases against sitting and former MLAs and MPs had risen to close to 5,000 towards the end of December 2021.

What is the way forward? Fast tracking trials and expediting the judicial process through a time-bound justice delivery system alone can cleanse our public life and rid it of this widespread disease. There cannot be any leniency to criminals and the corrupt in public life, especially when it comes to a range of crimes which are serious and heinous in nature.

Checking the nexus between crime, money and muscle power will be among the first few steps required to be taken. The growing dependence of political parties on criminals for muscle power and “electability” must be stopped. Parliament, judiciary and executive will have to find common ground to put firm mechanisms in place to deal with increased criminalisation of politics.