Court ruling on criminal conduct irks Indian politicians

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 March, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 March, 2003, 12:00am

Campaigners trying to purge Indian politics of criminals are celebrating at a Supreme Court ruling that upholds an earlier court verdict requiring all candidates to declare their criminal records when they stand for election.

About 40 MPs in the national parliament and 700 state legislators are facing charges for offences such as rape, crime, extortion and theft.

The 'criminalisation' of Indian politicians has been the subject of much hand-wringing for years, along with the mediocrity of their academic accomplishments.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that, at the time of filing their nominations, candidates would have to reveal three things: if they have ever been convicted, accused or acquitted in a criminal case; details of their assets; and their educational qualifications.

The entire political class frothed at the mouth. Despite paying lip service to the idea of expunging criminals from politics, most parties give tickets to criminals because their money and muscle power are useful assets in fighting elections. The ritual denunciations of criminals being elected as lawmakers are invariably insincere.

Indignant politicians attacked the Supreme Court ruling last year and then, in a display of unprecedented unity, passed a law nullifying the order. For example, it allowed elected representatives to declare their assets after they had been elected, rather than before.

Now the court has struck back, calling the law unconstitutional because 'a voter has the fundamental right to know the antecedents of a candidate'.

The law, the court decided, curtailed the voter's right to information. Unless candidates were subjected to greater scrutiny by the public, the chances of India having a competent legislature were damaged.

The Election Commission, which oversees the fair conduct of elections, welcomed the latest order. One of its members, T.S. Krishnamurthy, said: 'We sincerely hope that this judgment will pave the way for purity in the electoral process and further strengthen democracy.'

The court had made it clear that no legislature can argue that it is free to disregard a judicial verdict.

That, however, is not how politicians see it. They maintain that the court is infringing parliament's sovereignty and its right to make laws.

There is some urgency in settling the impasse. Elections are due later this year in several states and a general election is scheduled for next year.