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Criminals belong in prison

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The greatest merit of the rejection by the Supreme Court on Wednesday of the review petition filed by the Centre on an earlier decision of a bench of...

The greatest merit of the rejection by the Supreme Court on Wednesday of the review petition filed by the Centre on an earlier decision of a bench of the apex court disqualifying convicted criminals from continuing to be in Parliament or either House of a State legislature is that it has revived the hope of the masses that they will soon be free from rule by criminals. As such, the nation will surely rally behind the apex court in the effort to cleanse politics of anti-social elements. Criminals belong in prisons, not in Parliament, or State legislatures as the case may be.

That is the accepted principle in every democracy, especially in parliamentary democracy. It is an entirely different matter that in many other democracies elected representatives of the people, be they Ministers, MPs, or MLAs, quit out of a sense of shame the moment they discover that they have been guilty of some impropriety, but a majority of Indian politicians are so shameless as to contest elections from behind bars; if they win they become ministers with a straight face.

In a landmark judgment that could cleanse Parliament and Assemblies of criminals, the Supreme Court had on July 10 struck down a provision in the electoral law that protects a convicted lawmaker from disqualification on the ground of pendency of appeal in higher courts."The only question is about the vires of Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA) and we hold that it is ultra vires and that the disqualification takes place from the date of conviction," a bench of Justices A.K. Patnaik and S.J. Mukhopadhaya had said.

The court, however, said that its decision would not apply to convicted MPs and MLAs who have filed their appeals in the higher courts before the pronouncement of this verdict which sought to remove discrimination between an ordinary individual and an elected lawmaker who enjoys protection under the RP Act. Under Sec 8(3) of the RPA, a person convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years shall be disqualified for that and a further six years after release. The following sub-section 8(4) says a lawmaker cannot be disqualified for three months from the conviction if in that period he/ she files an appeal and till its disposal by a higher court. The Election Commission has, in its reports from time to time, been seeking amendment of the law for removal of the advantage to MPs and MLAs convicted of various offences.
But political parties have been resisting change on the ground that ruling dispensations bring false charges out of political vendetta to keep rivals out of the election process. According to findings of ADR, an NGO, 162 sitting MPs face criminal charges in various cases of which 76 involve offences punishable with imprisonment of more than five years. Similarly, 1,460 MLAs face criminal charges in various courts; 30 per cent of these are punishable with more than five years' imprisonment.
The political class should, therefore, be grateful to the apex court for agreeing to reconsider whether a person in jail has the right to run for office. That is the maximum latitude the political class is entitled to. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Centre, with the connivance of other parties, is drafting a Bill to amend the RP Act. An all-party meeting earlier had voiced concern over 'erosion of supremacy' of Parliament. Leaders of all parties were critical of the judgments. If a desperate Parliament now tries to neutralize the judgments through amendment of the RPA, voters in 2014 elections may decide not to vote, and that will endanger parliamentary form of government.
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