Hindustan Times
New Delhi

A few days from now we will witness that annual ritual known as Gandhi Jayanti when politicians trot off to pay tribute to the father of the nation.

And yet I can’t help wondering what Gandhiji would have made of the Association for Democratic Reforms’ (ADR) findings that 162 of 543 sitting Lok Sabha members have declared criminal cases against themselves.

The party-wise breakup shows rare commonality amongst our otherwise fractious political parties. An overwhelming 82% of the JMM’s MPs and MLAs have criminal cases against them. It’s 64% for the RJD; 48% for the Samajwadi Party; 31% for the BJP and 21% for the Congress.

To be fair, a charge is not a conviction. Someone might file a false complaint. Some charges won’t hold in court because of lack of evidence. But the ADR figures are worrying for anyone interested in the quality of Indian politics and calibre of those we elect. And yet, this past week, the UPA Cabinet rammed through an ordinance that seems designed to protect these very criminals.

The public outcry that followed — the BJP met the president to lodge its protest, a public interest litigation was filed in court and even the Congress’s own MPs like Milind Deora expressed disapproval — has led to an equally hasty U-turn. Now that Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has dramatically termed it “nonsense”, the ordinance is pretty much dead in the water.

Yet, uncomfortable questions persist: why even try to bring in an ordinance when a Bill to the same effect is already pending in Parliament? How serious is the government, led by the Congress, about ushering in an era of politics without taint? And what do we make of Gandhi’s last-minute intervention? The kindest interpretation is a lack of communication between the party and the government. To the more cynical, Gandhi’s statement is opportunistic grandstanding.

Regardless of which way you lean, the inevitable death of the ordinance is welcome. It remains to be seen if the government will follow through by also withdrawing the Bill that is pending before Parliament.

Under the Constitution, legislators must vacate their seats immediately if convicted for serious crimes. The government’s Bill proposes to give them three months to file an appeal. If the higher court grants them a stay, they continue. If not, they go.

The idea of two classes of people — ordinary citizens and those elected to represent them — is anathema to democracy. If an ordinary citizen is barred from contesting elections if he stands convicted on the day of polling, why should an elected representative get special privileges? The question gains currency at a time when leadership bankruptcy, corruption and the criminalisation of politics are serious concerns.

Coincidentally, the ordinance drama played out on a day the Supreme Court ruled that ‘none of the above’ (NOTA) is a valid electoral choice. Hearing a petition filed by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, a three-judge bench observed, “Negative voting would lead to systemic changes in polls and political parties will be forced to project clean candidates.”

There is no clarity yet on the implications of a negative vote in instances, say, where NOTA gets more votes than a candidate. Will the principle of first-past-the-post apply or will it result in a re-poll?

If the past week’s dramatic events demonstrated anything it is this: growing public impatience with entrenched political parties and their lip service to ‘clean politics’. Now, the challenge for them is to restore their own credibility as well as confidence in the public’s faith in a system that seems irreparably rotten. When political parties gang up to keep themselves out of the ambit of the Right to Information Act, for instance, what message do they send out?

In a few months from now when elections are declared, political parties will begin that exercise known as ticket distribution. How many candidates with charges from rape to murder will impress their party bosses and contest in the world’s largest election?

We, the voters, will be waiting and watching.

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