NEW DELHI – Breaking up the dangerous mix of crime and politics in India remains a challenge even as the country’s top court has warned against the “alarming increase” of criminal politicians in the world’s largest democracy that has some 43 percent of parliamentarians facing criminal charges, political pundits say.
Analysts say the Supreme Court’s intervention to break the nexus may not be enough because the ball ultimately lies with the political class in the country of 1.3 billion people, about 900 million of them being eligible voters.
The court on Thursday noted an “alarming increase of criminals in politics” and ordered political parties to publicize on their websites the details of pending criminal cases against their candidates.
The ruling may not have a far-reaching impact on the decriminalization of Indian politics, according to the analysts, because, they say, the link increases winnability chances.
For example, nearly 43 percent of the members of the parliament’s lower house have criminal charges pending against them.
Over a quarter relate to serious crimes like rape, murder or attempted murder, according to a 2019 report by Association of Democratic Reforms, a non-partisan research institute for electoral and political reforms in India.
The percentage of candidates with pending criminal cases was 24 percent in the 2004 national election that rose to 33 percent in 2009, 34 percent in 2014.
According to the ADR, 116 of the 303 current lawmakers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party face criminal charges. These include Pragya Singh Thakur, accused of a 2008 terror bombing at a Muslim neighborhood that killed seven people.
Some 29 of the opposition Indian National Congress party’s 52 lawmakers also face serious charges.
Indian law bars only convicted politicians from contesting elections. But no rule prohibits those accused of crimes.
“That is vitiating the elections in our country,” former parliament secretary general PDT Acharya told EFE.
“These observations and the rulings of the Supreme Court will not go too far. Earlier, the Supreme Court had given some kind of a ruling on publishing criminal cases against candidates. But nobody bothers about it,” Acharya said.
He said India’s crime and politics are so closely knit that it “is no longer shocking because the Indian public has gotten used to it and it doesn’t affect them.”
The Law Commission of India, an executive body to suggest legal reforms, and the country’s poll panel have since long recommended measures to cleanse politics which include barring those accused of heinous crimes like murder, rape, and kidnapping from contesting if charges are filed against them.
No government has accepted the recommendation because of the fear of its misuse by rivals. However, the law commission and the poll body have suggested judicial scrutiny of evidence before charges are filed as the safeguard against any misuse.
“Political parties and all of them are not going to accept that because every political party benefits from people with criminal backgrounds in elections since there are obvious advantages in carrying musclemen along,” Acharya said.
He noted that the “money power” also impacts Indian democracy even though there are legal provisions that limit the election expenditure of candidates.
“That has no meaning,” he said, explaining how political parties spend any amount “maybe even one billion Indian rupees” that won’t be counted as the expenditure of the candidate.
“These things need to be looked into. But no government is ready to do that because every government benefits from (such loopholes).”
Praveen Rai, a political analyst known for his research on election studies with New Delhi-based think-tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, agrees, though he said the court ruling was “quite a welcome judgment.”
“The number of such candidates is increasing. The responsibility lies with political parties but they have not done anything much,” Rai told EFE.
He said the country’s political class has failed their people “because of the race to win power.”
“They (candidates with criminal backgrounds) have clout in their constituencies, they enjoy the support of their people. They have a winnability quotient and political parties give tickets to them just to win elections.”