It has long been a matter of common perception in India that the declining moral calibre of politicians has been accompanied by the rising clout of criminals. The connection between them was noted two decades ago by the then union home secretary, NN Vohra, who said in a report that “the nexus between criminal gangs, police, bureaucracy and politicians” had led to a situation where the anti-social elements could carry on their “activities with impunity”.
As is known, politicians used the musclepower of crooks in the earlier years to win elections by intimidating voters. Then, the mafia dons realised that instead of helping others to win, they could enter the legislatures themselves. This choice of destination has led to a situation where 162 of the present-day 543 MPs and 1,258 of the 4,032 MLAs, face serious criminal charges. The numbers are much higher, nearly 30 percent, if the non-serious charges are taken into account.
This mutually beneficial cohabitation between the leaders and the lawless elements will be disrupted if and when the Supreme Court’s latest diktat comes into force. In a judgment which can change the face of Indian politics, the court has said that the legislators will lose their seats on being convicted in a criminal case unlike at present when they can continue if they file an appeal within three months.
Not surprisingly, the government has demurred, reflecting the uneasiness in the corridors of power if the cozy connection between the governing classes and the goons is broken. The official argument is that any abrupt termination of membership of the legislators can destabilise a government, especially one with a “razor-thin” majority. In a move to delay the inevitable, the government also wants the judgment to be referred to a larger bench.
These self-serving arguments recall Manmohan Singh’s observation that if steps are taken against ministers charged with corruption, viz., their dismissal, then a general election may have to be called every six months. It is apparently better, therefore, to let the sleeping dogs - in this case, the scoundrels and the scam-tainted - lie.
A standard argument of the politicians against booking the black sheep in their ranks has been that it will encourage the rivals to file false cases to trap them in a legal battle. The effect of this temporising has been that for years no corrective action was initiated with the result that more and more of the criminal elements have become MPs and MLAs.
So eager is the political class to protect the villains that eminently sensible suggestions by the Election Commission and the Law Commission that at least those against whom prima facie charges have been framed should be disqualified were ignored.
Nor have the parties cared to cleanse their own houses by not fielding tainted candidates. The reason for their reluctance is known. These “bahubalis” or powerful persons - physically, not intellectually - often have the reputation of being Robin Hoods with considerable influence in their areas, based mainly on terrorising the populace with the help of a cowed police. Clearly, the parties cannot do without the thugs at election time.
Nowhere is the reign of the hoods more prevalent than in the caste-ridden Hindi heartland, where the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), the party of adivasis or tribals, has earned the dubious distinction of having the largest number of legislators with a criminal background - 82 per cent.
It is followed by former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) with 64 percent and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) with 48 per cent. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which claims to be a party of Rambhakts or devotees of Lord Ram, comes fourth in this unsavoury list with 31 percent, while the Congress, the Grand Old Party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, is next with 21 percent.
It is this propensity of the parties to harbour suspected murderers, kidnappers and extortionists in their ranks that has made the general public look upon all politicians with suspicion and given the profession of politics a bad name. Although there are MPs and MLAs who are honest and committed to public welfare, they are also aware that the rotten apples among them have tarnished the names of all of them. Yet, for all the lip-service that the parties pay to high ideals, they have been too preoccupied with the immediate advantages provided by the ruffians at the ground level to live up to the professed noble concepts.
Only former prime minister V.P. Singh of the Janata Dal had once asked the electorate not to vote for the tainted among his party’s candidates, but his party had fielded them anyway. The cynics may, therefore, wonder whether the judiciary will succeed in its latest endeavour to cleanse the system when the political class has such high stakes in retaining it with all its ugliness.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst