Source: The Assam Tribune Relevance: GS-II (Indian Polity and Governance); GS-IV(Ethics, Integrity and Aptitude)

Context: In the wake of escalating tensions in Sandeshkhali, North 24 Parganas district, recent protests erupted due to accusations of land seizure and sexual violence against women, leading to demands for the detention of local TMC leader Shahjahan Sheikh and his cohorts. Police have detained 18 individuals, including TMC's Shibaprasad Hazra and Uttam Sardar, related to the disturbances.

Charges including 'gang rape' and 'attempted murder' have been filed against three main suspects, with one still evading capture. This incident highlights the growing criminalization in India's political landscape, significantly diminishing trust in the political system and creating an impression of impunity among those in authority.

Criminalisation of Politics

  • Political Criminalization means Involvement of individuals with criminal records in politics, evident through their nominations and elections to Parliament and State Legislatures, fueled by a mutually beneficial relationship with criminal entities.

  •  ADR Report Findings: A shocking 44% of the 4,001 state assembly legislators across India are implicated in criminal cases, as per the Association of Democratic Reforms.

  • National Level Concerns: In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, 43% of MPs faced criminal charges, a significant rise from 34% in 2014.

  •  Asset Growth Analysis: The wealth of 71 MPs who were re-elected to the Lok Sabha from 2009 to 2019 increased by an average of nearly 300%, highlighting potential concerns over their financial integrity and the influence of money in politics.

Factors Influencing Criminalisation of Politics:

  • Prioritizing Winnability: Political parties often choose candidates with criminal backgrounds for their ability to secure votes through intimidation, prioritizing electoral success over ethical considerations.

  •  Use of Coercion: Candidates employ force to build a loyal voter base and strengthen their political position, especially in areas where electoral violence and intimidation are prevalent.

  •  Exploiting Criminal Funds: Political entities use money obtained from criminal activities to influence elections, buy votes, and ensure victory, benefiting from the financial clout of illicit operations.

  •  Lack of Candidate Transparency: The electoral system's failures prevent voters from accessing full details on candidates' criminal records, leading to uninformed voting choices.

  • Judicial Delays: The slow pace of justice in courts allows individuals with criminal backgrounds to continue their political careers without facing consequences, undermining the rule of law.

  • Weak Enforcement: Inadequate implementation of laws and court orders aimed at reducing political criminalization limits their effectiveness, allowing criminal elements to remain active in politics.

  • Community Bias in Voting: Voters often prioritize caste or religious loyalty over candidates' ethical backgrounds, diminishing the impact of revealing criminal records.

  • Entrenched Criminal-Political Ties: Deep-rooted connections between politicians and criminal networks facilitate mutual benefits but erode democratic values and challenge law enforcement efforts.

Outcomes of Criminalisation of Politics

  • Erosion of Democratic Trust: The presence of criminals in elected positions diminishes the foundational trust in democracy, leading to skepticism about the system's effectiveness and purpose.

  • Impact on Governance Quality: Leadership roles filled by individuals with criminal records often result in poor governance, as these figures may lack the necessary skills and ethical standards, focusing instead on personal enrichment.

  • Cultivation of a Culture of Impunity: The normalization of criminal behaviour among politicians encourages a belief in consequence-free wrongdoing, potentially leading to higher crime rates and weakened law adherence.

  • Increase in Corruption: Criminal politicians are more likely to engage in corrupt practices, perpetuating cycles of bribery, fraud, and misappropriation, thus damaging the integrity of governmental institutions.

  • Barrier to Economic Progress: The pervasive corruption and mismanagement associated with criminal politicians deter investments, slowing economic development and exacerbating societal disparities.

  • Obstacle to Social Advancement: Corrupt governance hampers social development projects, affecting healthcare, education, and welfare, with disproportionate effects on disadvantaged groups.

  • Damage to International Image: Political criminalization harms India's global reputation, affecting diplomatic relations and international cooperation.

  • Undermining Electoral Integrity: The involvement of criminals in politics limits voter choice and violates the principles of free and fair elections, compromising the democracy's legitimacy.

  • Erosion of Democratic Institutions: Criminal involvement in politics undermines the strength of democratic frameworks, manipulating systems for personal gain and undermining legal and accountability standards.

  • Corruption Among Public Officials: Electoral corruption, including the flow of illicit funds, compromises the integrity of public servants and diminishes faith in public institutions.

  • Social Unrest: Acceptance of violence and criminality in the political arena disrupts societal harmony and undermines faith in democracy as an effective system of governance.

Legal and Constitutional means dealing with Criminalisation of Politics: While the Indian Constitution doesn’t explicitly outline disqualification criteria for contesting elections, it provides the foundation for legislative measures aimed at addressing the issue of criminalization in politics.

Representation of Peoples (RP) Act 1951:

  • Under the Representation of Peoples Act (RP) 1951, individuals are barred from running in elections only if they have been convicted in a criminal case.

  • The RP Act 1951 outlines the eligibility criteria for election candidates, including disqualifications for those convicted of certain offenses under Section 8.

  • According to Section 8, a person sentenced to imprisonment for over two years is ineligible to contest in elections for six years following the completion of their sentence.

  • The Election Commission of India has the authority, as per the Representation of the People Act 1951, to either cancel or shorten the disqualification period for a candidate.

Election Commission of India

Booth Capturing Deterrence

  • The Election Commission of India (ECI) took decisive action in 1989 by introducing provisions allowing for the adjournment or countermanding of elections in cases of booth capturing. 

  • This proactive measure aims to combat the illegal seizure and control of polling stations, ensuring the integrity of the electoral process and safeguarding voters’ rights.

Arms Prohibition Enforcement: 

  • The ECI rigorously enforces regulations prohibiting the presence of arms in the vicinity of polling stations, recognizing the potential for intimidation and violence to disrupt the electoral process. 

  • This strict stance against armed individuals near polling sites serves to uphold the safety and security of voters and election personnel.

Muscle Power Mitigation: 

  • Through effective implementation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), the ECI has made significant strides in curbing the influence of muscle power in elections. 

  • By enforcing guidelines that govern the behaviour of political parties and candidates during the electoral process, the ECI fosters an environment conducive to free and fair elections, minimizing coercion and intimidation tactics.

Model Code of Conduct Empowerment: 

  • Utilizing its constitutional authority under Article 324, the ECI proactively implements the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) to regulate the conduct of political parties and candidates during elections

  • This authoritative framework governs various aspects of electioneering, including campaign behaviour, speech content, and expenditure limits, ensuring fairness and transparency throughout the electoral cycle.

Affidavit Accountability Enhancement: 

  • Mandating the submission of affidavits detailing assets and criminal charges to the ECI prior to elections represents a significant step towards transparency and accountability in the electoral process. 

  • By requiring candidates to disclose pertinent information, the ECI empowers voters with crucial insights into the backgrounds of their representatives, fostering informed decision-making and promoting electoral integrity.

Supreme Court of India

  • Transparency Mandate (2002): Mandated election candidates to disclose criminal records and assets, enhancing voter awareness and transparency.

  • Immediate Disqualification Protocol (2013): Established immediate disqualification for convicted MPs and MLAs, eliminating appeal grace periods and ensuring faster accountability.

  • Judicial Expediency Directive (2014): Instituted fast-track trials for elected officials to conclude within a year, promoting swift justice and accountability.

  • Enhanced Public Awareness (2019): Required political parties to publish candidates' criminal records, improving voter information and fostering accountability in elections.

Way Forward:

  • Lifetime Ban Enforcement: Advocated by the Election Commission and supported by the apex court, to deter criminals from contesting elections, enhancing political integrity.

  • Judicial Proactivity for Accountability: Courts to actively bar candidates with serious criminal charges from elections, maintaining electoral integrity and protecting democracy.

  • Electoral Awareness Promotion: Educating citizens on electoral misuse and encouraging active participation to prevent illicit practices, ensuring transparency.

  • State Funding Advocacy: Recommended by reform committees to minimize black money's influence by reducing dependency on private funds, promoting fair elections.

  • Election Commission Empowerment: Essential to strengthen and maintain its independence, enabling effective regulation and deterrence of criminal elements in politics.

Citizen Vigilance: Emphasizes the role of informed and vigilant voters in combating political criminalization, upholding democratic values of transparency and integrity.

Advait IAS