SC terms criminalisation of politics ‘unsettling’

The Supreme Court on Tuesday held that all candidates will have to declare their criminal antecedents to the Election Commission before contesting polls, and termed as “unsettling” the criminalisation of politics in the world’s largest democracy.

The apex court said that informed choice is the cornerstone of democracy and asked the legislature to consider framing a law to ensure decriminalisation of politics.

It said there was a need for a law to prevent persons with serious criminal cases pending against them from entering the legislature and be a part of lawmaking.

The top court said corruption and criminalisation of politics are hitting at the roots of Indian democracy, and Parliament must take steps urgently to curb this menace.

A five-judge Constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, said that citizens have a right to be informed about the antecedents of their candidates.

It said the candidates have to file a form with the Election Commission declaring their criminal antecedents and criminal history in ‘bold letters’.

In the unanimous verdict, the bench, also comprising Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, said that political parties are obligated to put all the information about their candidates on their websites.

The apex court also said that political parties must be informed by the candidates about their criminal background.

It called for wider publicity, through print and electronic media about the antecedents of candidates affiliated to political parties.

Taking note of the submissions of Attorney General K K Venugopal that the court should not cross the laxman rekha vis-a-vis the separation of powers, the bench said it cannot enter into legislative arena to provide disqualification for candidates who are facing serious criminal cases.

However, it said the nation eagerly waits such legislation and the lawmaking wing of the democracy should take upon itself to come out with a law to address this.

The verdict was pronounced on a batch of pleas raising a question whether lawmakers facing criminal trial can be disqualified from contesting elections at the stage of framing of charges against them.

According to the prevalent law, the lawmakers and candidates are barred under the Representation of Peoples (RP) Act from contesting elections only after their conviction in a criminal case.

The verdict was reserved on August 28.

The Centre had contended that the judiciary should not venture into the legislative arena by creating a pre-condition which would adversely affect the right of the candidates to participate in polls as there was already the RP Act which deals with the issue of disqualification.

Referring to the concept of presumption of innocence until a person is proven guilty, the Centre had argued that depriving a person from contesting elections on a party ticket would amount to denial of the right to vote, which also included the right to contest.

It had said that the courts will have to presume innocence in view of the fact that in 70 per cent cases, accused are being acquitted.

Venugopal had said that Parliament has made a distinction between an accused and a convict and there has been a provision for disqualification in the Representation of Peoples Act upon conviction of a lawmaker.

The Election Commission of India had taken a view which was apparently opposite to the Centre and said that the recommendations for decriminalising politics were made by the poll panel and the Law Commission way back in 1997 and 1998, but no action was taken on them.

It exhorted the court to issue the direction in the matter besides asking Parliament to make the suitable law.

The PILs were filed by NGO ‘Public Interest Foundation’ and BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay.