Tribune India
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr

Criminalisation of politics will persist unless the judiciary cracks the whip or voters make political parties fall in line.

THE information that the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), which has been pressing for electoral reforms for a quarter century now, has released about the criminal cases against candidates contesting in the first phase (April 19) of the Lok Sabha elections is noteworthy. As mandated by the Election Commission of India, the candidates are required to state in self-sworn affidavits the criminal cases they are facing. The ADR had scrutinised 1,618 of the 1,625 affidavits. It showed that 252 (nearly 16 per cent of the contestants) faced criminal charges. And those facing serious criminal charges were 161, which accounted for 10 per cent of the candidates contesting the election in the first phase.

When the police register cases, they use relevant, and sometimes irrelevant, provisions of the IPC to make their case.

The party-wise distribution is interesting as well. Of the BJP’s 77 candidates in this phase, 28 are facing criminal charges (36 per cent) and 14 (18 per cent) are facing serious criminal charges. Of the Congress’ 56 candidates, 19 (34 per cent) are facing criminal cases and eight (14 per cent) serious charges. At the state level, the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, has 22 candidates in the fray, of whom 13 (59 per cent) are facing criminal charges and six (27 per cent) serious charges. The AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) has 36 candidates in this round, and 13 of them (36 per cent) are facing criminal charges, while six (17 per cent) face serious criminal charges. More interesting is the case of a smaller Tamil Nadu political party with a significant political clout in its social segment, the Pattali Makkal Katchi. Out of its 10 candidates, six have criminal cases pending against them and the others face serious criminal charges.

What do these figures indicate? They suggest that political parties have members who are allegedly involved in criminal activities, including serious ones like murder, attempt to murder and rape. And this leads to the inevitable conclusion that parties have in their ranks people who are troublemakers, lawbreakers, and, in plain terms, criminals. Many of the so-called ‘strongmen’ who muscle their way into grabbing party tickets to fight elections have climbed up on the basis of their criminal acts to a position where they have created an aura of fear around them.

But there is another side, too. Political activities in India are marked by protests, violent clashes and arrests. And when the police register cases, they use relevant, and sometimes irrelevant, provisions of the Indian Penal Code to make their case. There are those involved in murder and rape cases among political workers, and there are those who have been framed.

The hallmarks of a political activist in this country are participation in a street march, facing police lathi-charge, tear gas and rubber bullets and spending time in police lockup. On the record book, many of these are shown as acts of breaking the law. So, this would require further analysis of the nature of the criminal charges that each candidate faces. Then there is the case of hardened criminals, which includes politicians who get their rivals attacked or killed. Or they are involved in crimes against women when they are in power and even when they are not. What is needed then is to narrow down the crime list to murder, rape and sexual harassment to start with. The job becomes difficult because the police are at the beck and call of the ruling party. And they are likely to register more cases against activists of Opposition parties. The police records need to be scrutinised.

These issues are not going to get sorted out in a jiffy. Society has to change, and people have to demand that clean and honest politicians are nominated as candidates. And the voters should vote out anyone with a criminal record, whether their names figure in the police files or not. It is a known fact in India that many of the so-called powerful politicians shut out members of marginalised communities from voting through the use of force and intimidation.

To bring about this long-term change in the quality of political life, the role of democracy watchdogs is indispensable. There is a need for more groups like the ADR to emerge and join hands to ensure that political standards do not fall, and democracy is kept alive. Elections must continue to be held, and governments must change. But these things need to be monitored continuously. What people need the most is democratic auditing because the parties in power will not do it, and the Opposition parties are biased.

It is left to civil society groups to take up the task. The formation of democracy clubs and freedom associations across the country, which should run into thousands and where groups of people can meet and discuss political issues, could go a long way in supporting the work of such groups. This will make it difficult for authoritarian governments to crack down on people who are monitoring politics. These groups need to be supported by the people. And when people are presented with undeniable facts, they can make an informed choice. The political parties will fall in line. People should be the pressure group. Parties should not believe that they can lead people like sheep. People have to be the shepherds.

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