The United Progressive Alliance has brazened it out on another piece of legislation aimed at cosseting and mollycoddling the political class. The Representation of the People (Amendment and Validation) Ordinance, 2013, which overturns a Supreme Court order mandating the disqualification of lawmakers immediately upon their conviction, offends for two reasons. First, the ordinance marks the backdoor entry of a bill that faced opposition in the monsoon session of Parliament. And second, it aims to create a class of people who can legitimately claim to be special in the eyes of the law — and even when convicted by a court of law. The apex court ruling was itself based on the sound principle that there cannot be two sets of citizens: A convicted legislator could not claim immunity from disqualification when this relaxation was not available to a convicted citizen aspiring to contest elections. Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act protects a convicted legislator from disqualification provided he or she appeals before a higher court within three months. The court struck down this clause, “which carves out a saving in the case of sitting members of Parliament or State Legislature,” even as it held that Parliament was obliged under Articles 102(1)(e) and 191(1)(e) of the Constitution to make one common law for both ordinary citizens and sitting legislators.
The court order is by no means a case of judicial overreach. The disqualification is restricted to MPs and MLAs convicted in criminal cases where the offences are punishable by a jail sentence of two years or more. This automatically excludes not just those convicted on lesser grounds but also those charge sheeted for grave offences. The Association for Democratic Reforms, which examined the sworn affidavits of a total of 4,807 sitting MPs and MLAs, found 14 per cent had declared serious criminal charges against themselves. Obviously the presumption of innocence must and does apply in these cases. A conviction, however, is a very serious matter. Besides, the appeal process could take years, leading to the untenable situation of a convicted legislator completing his or her full term. It is clear enough that the ordinance has been rushed through with political motives — to bail out convicted Congress MP Rashid Masood and possibly also Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad, one of whose cases is soon to come up for judgment. In the face of public pressure, the government had to put off an attempt to shield political parties from coming under the purview of the Right to Information Act. One more such self-serving effort is unlikely to go down well with citizens gearing up to vote in the coming State and general elections.
A sentence in the editorial, Not above the law (Sept. 26, 2013) read thus: “The disqualification is restricted to MPs and MLAs convicted in criminal cases where the offences are punishable by a jail sentence of two years or more.” A reader pointed out that “a jail sentence of two years or more” is not necessary. Mere conviction is enough in this context with even a lesser quantum of punishment. The editorial writer said: “The reader is right. The confusion arose from section 8(3) of the RPA. A person convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years [other than any offence referred to in sub-section (1) or sub-section (2) shall be disqualified form the date of such conviction and shall continue to be disqualified for a further period of six years since his release.]