to a recent study, the
present Lok Sabha has the unique distinction of having as many as 125
members with criminal background. Serious charges of murder, rape,
kidnapping, extortion and the like are pending against many of them. A
media report puts their number at 139. They are all
"Honourable" members. They have not been convicted yet and
are not likely to be convicted in the near future. The cases against
them may remain pending for years. Adjournments may follow
adjournments. Witnesses may not turn up, may turn hostile or may get
eliminated. Finally, the cases may somehow get dropped. Meanwhile,
some of them may remain "Honourable" members and even occupy
high ministerial berths. The position in our State legislatures is
much worse end even more alarming.
Saner elements in civil society and concerned citizens are beginning to be worried at the spectre of full-fledged "criminalisation of politics and politicisation of criminals" to use the formulation of one of our Prime Ministers. There is no doubt that there are several good men in politics as in any other walk of life. But, if the present trend among our elected representatives remains unchecked, it is felt, the doomsday and demise of democracy and rule of law may not be too far away. We need to analyse what are the root causes of the malady and how can we prevent "criminals" from getting into Parliament and State Assemblies?
There are no easy answers even though enough has been written and spoken about the close linkages and interdependence between crime and politics. The system under which we live and the people who operate it have nurtured an axis between the criminals – smugglers inter alia of arms and drugs, jehadi terrorists, mafia gangs and the like — and corrupt politicians, police, bureaucrats and businessmen. Together they are in a position to manipulate the system and monopolise power. In parts of the country, Marx seems to have been proved right; the State has withered away. The underground criminal gangs and extortionists sometimes disguised as terrorists, Maoists, etc. rule and call the shots. The legislators, the ministers, chief ministers and senior officers pay them regular ransom to remain in power. For those in politics and administration, power for its own sake and for getting rich quick has become the supreme pursuit.
Crucial social and economic burning issues along with law and order are marginalised for short-term political power gains. Even well-intentioned policies fail as firmness in policy implementation is sacrificed to curry favour to attain and sustain power. This results in giving undue leverage to persons who are inefficient and incompetent in business of legislation and governance but who have the necessary money and muscle power. Power brokers, number makers, small selfish groups of criminals coalesce around a mesh of self-serving interests and get to run the country and legislatures resulting in the downward spiralling of the quality of governance.
At the root of the role of criminals in public life is the need for huge unaccounted funds and muscle power support for political work, parties and elections. Initially, the big industrialists and business houses financed the political parties and the politicians. It was good investment with high returns (ROI) through licenses, permits, contracts and the like. But, with the advent of liberalised economy, this source of finance gradually dried up. Also, the businessmen more and more adopted the strategy of paying only on a job basis instead of funding different parties and their elections on a regular basis.
The role of criminals in politics began in a big way with the criminals needing the politicians’ protection against the processes of law and paying them for it in advance by helping them in elections and otherwise. Politicians needed huge sums of unaccounted money for political activities, their parties, elections and for themselves. Nobody could pay his hard-earned, white, tax-paid money to the politicians; funds from the crime world came handy. Gradually, the politicians became subservient to the dons of the crime world. The latter soon realised that the elections were being won with their money and their muscle power. It was not any surprise when they themselves decided to enter politics. They fought elections and became members and even powerful ministers. Also, a stage came when politicians began seeking their help for survival in power and for physical protection from rivals. Instead of the professional criminals paying protection money to politicians, it was now the turn of professional politicians paying the former.
The Vohra Committee appointed by the government had stated in strong terms that the nexus between crime syndicates and political personalities was very deep. According to the CBI report to the Vohra Committee: "all over India, crime syndicates have become a law unto themselves. Even in the smaller towns and rural areas, muscle-men have become the order of the day. Hired assassins have become part of these organisations`85. The existing criminal justice system, which was essentially designed to deal with the individual offences/crimes, is unable to deal with the activities of the mafia; the provisions of law in regard to economic offences are weak; there are insurmountable legal difficulties in attaching/confiscation of the property acquired through mafia activities".
The committee quoted other agencies to state that the mafia network is "virtually running a parallel government, pushing the State apparatus into irrelevance." The report also said "in certain States`85 these gangs enjoy the patronage of local politicians cutting across party lines and the protection of the functionaries. Some political leaders become the leaders of these gangs/armed senas and over the years get themselves elected to local bodies, State assemblies and national Parliament. Resultantly, such elements have acquired considerable political clout seriously jeopardising the smooth functioning of the administration and the safety of the life and property of the common man causing a sense of despair and alienation among people."
In the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution (2000-02) we examined the problem in depth and made some very potent re-commendations particularly with a view to preventing "criminals" from getting into our Parliament and State Legislatures. Some of these need to be iterated:
(i) Once charges relating to certain crimes have been framed by a court against a person, he should not be permitted to contest elections unless cleared. A potential candidate against whom charges have been framed by the police may take the matter to a special electoral court. This court may decide in a time-bound manner whether there is indeed a prima facie case justifying the framing of charges. If yes, the person should not be allowed to contest.
(ii) Once convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, the person involved should be debarred by law from contesting elections for the entire period of the sentence plus an additional six years.
(iii) At present, sitting members are not disqualified even when convicted until their appeal is decided. This provision of the RPI Act of 1951 should be deleted. If an elected representative gets convicted on charges related to specific crimes, he should be required to withdraw from the legislature for six months and if within that period he fails to get an acquittal, he should be disqualified.
(iv) Lastly and most importantly, electoral and political party reforms by law must be brought about without further delay inter alia for reducing the cost of elections through use of technology and stricter control mechanisms, divesting all legislators other than ministers of all executive functions and offices of profit, regulating the number and functioning of parties, audit and public scrutiny of party funds, making voting compulsory for all the adult citizens, educating the voters in regard to their citizenship responsibilities and dangers of voting criminals to public offices.
All the efforts made so far by the Supreme Court and the Election Commission like making it obligatory for candidates to disclose information about criminal cases pending against them etc. have proved to be of no avail. In fact, after the information was made available, we have more legislators with criminal background then ever before. The question is where do we go form here?
It is not very difficult to suggest more ways and means of really unshackling public life from the strongholds of the crime world. The real problem is of implementing the suggestions. Those who can do it through peaceful constitutional means are the very law makers who have a vested interest in the status quo. Why should the prime beneficiaries of a corrupt and criminalised system change it and dig their own grave? The only hope is in an awakened citizenry rising forcefully and asserting their sovereign right to change the system.
The writer is former Secretary-General, Lok Sabha, and author of the six-volume "History of Parliament of India"