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A mighty challenge, a feeble response

By K.K. Katyal

The entire political establishment is united not on threats of external aggression, of terrorist violence or such other matters of national interest but against moves to check the criminalisation of politics, to ensure cleanliness of the electoral processes. An all-party meeting last week displayed rare unanimity in rejecting the Election Commission's (EC) guidelines — based on an order of the Supreme Court — seeking to achieve these objectives. With remarkable promptitude, the Government prepared the draft of a Bill diluting the Supreme Court's order in material respects. Its adoption in the current session of Parliament is considered a certainly in sharp contrast to the delays, hesitation and dilatoriness over far-reaching legislative proposals, for instance on the reservation of seats for women in Parliament and State legislatures.

Through the draft Bill, the Government has taken a small half step forward and two giant steps backward. The spokespersons of the Government and the political parties, mustering their full might, focus on the tiny move forward, but are evasive on the bid to virtually nullify the operation of the wholesome features of the Supreme Court order. The key issues are thus sought to be fudged. The omission of the provision requiring electoral candidates to declare their assets before the elections is too conspicuous to go unnoticed. A prominent functionary of the BJP declared, somewhat pompously, that the draft Bill marked a big advance over the EC's guidelines. He, obviously, takes a dim view of the people's intelligence. A junior Minister, making light of the absence of the requirement of the declaration of assets by candidates, made this extraordinary point: "But we, the members of the Council of Ministers, do disclose our assets to the Prime Minister." Tomorrow, he could well say: "I have declared my assets — to my wife."

The pre-election disclosure of assets is qualitatively different from the post-poll declaration by elected members; more so, from the disclosure by a small band of Cabinet Ministers to the Prime Minister in what essentially is an in-house operation. There are no practical difficulties in making such a declaration at the stage of the filing of nomination papers. The other day, P.C. Alexander, till recently the Governor of Maharashtra and now a candidate for a Rajya Sabha seat from the State, conformed to this requirement. The heavens didn't fall. A declaration before the election helps the electors in making the right choice. It would have been a different story if a person had something to hide.

This omission in the draft Bill is the one major step backward. The other is the absence of the requirement (contained in the EC guidelines) by candidates to furnish information, in an affidavit, about their criminal antecedents. The half-step forward is the proposed bar on contesting elections by persons against whom charges have been framed by courts in two separate cases of heinous crimes as against the present practice of two years' conviction in a criminal case. Here the question may be asked whether one such case is not enough for the bar.

There was no doubt a case (1) for simplifying the procedures involved in the Commission's notification — for pruning the 40-page affidavit, (2) for guarding against the arbitrariness of returning officers, (3) for excluding from the "criminal antecedents" the convictions in cases of political nature, and (4) for removing the declaration of educational qualifications. But there was certainly no justification for diluting the do's and don'ts about the entry of criminals into politics. That the all-party unanimity caused widespread revulsion against politicians as a tribe was evident from the derisive comments as political worthies, big and small and of all hues, appeared on television to talk about the hardship to be caused by the court verdict.

It was not the first time that the Government spoke of the supremacy of Parliament in enacting laws when it decided to bring legislation on issues figuring in the Supreme Court order. In the early 1970s, the Congress-led government nullified the effect of the court order, including the amount spent by the party within the ceiling of expenses by candidates. The Opposition was sharply critical of the Government move, widely seen as a bid to forestall any problem for the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, in an election petition. Now the Opposition and the Government are on the same side of the fence.

The seriousness of the problem of criminalisation of politics and of the nexus among criminals, politicians and bureaucrats was brought out by the former Union Home Secretary, N.N. Vohra, in a report submitted in October 1993 (which, of course, was consigned to the archives). It contained several sensational observations made by official agencies — on the network of the mafia virtually running a parallel government; on criminal gangs enjoying the patronage of politicians, cutting across party lines, and the protection of government functionaries and on political leaders becoming leaders of gangs, armed Senas and, over the years, getting themselves elected to local bodies, State Assemblies and Parliament. The unpublished annexures to the Vohra report were believed to contain highly explosive material.

A mighty challenge, a feeble response.

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