Monday, July 15, 2013

Will the criminals and their patrons heed judicial ruling? It's a war

Only figuratively do legislatures represent the people; in real terms they represent the political class. When a legislature passes an irresponsible law, the political class as a whole stands condemned. This is patently so when laws are passed to protect criminals in the House. Such transgressions have been going on for a while, enabling murderers and rapists to function as law-makers and as cabinet ministers. Democracy was shamed in the process and India disgraced before the world.

Although in a different context, Nani Palkhivala had drawn a distinction between what a sane Parliament can possibly do and an insane Parliament may probably do. The insane Parliament he feared had been prominently at work in recent years, now giving immunity to criminals, now blocking Parliament's proceedings altogether. Worse, at no point did party leaders, including supposedly eminent ones, pause to think about the abuse of democracy that was happening under their nose. At no level was there any effort to stop the criminalisation of legislatures.

Can the judiciary do what politicians refuse to do? It is not surprising, but ironic nevertheless, that simple matters elected representatives of the people must do in their line of duty are left undone and that the judiciary has to step in to reassure the people. Acid attacks on women became frequent enough to demand remedial measures at government level. No action came, not even after nudging by the judiciary. The Supreme Court has now served an ultimatum that if the Centre does not come up with a plan to regulate the retail sale of acid, it will impose a ban on all sales.

Open solicitation of voters with virtually free rice, bicycles, computers, mangalsutras and the like was making a mockery of elections. Yet, all political parties jumped into the freebee racket with competitive fervour. The Supreme Court had to cry a halt to this evident malpractice. Freebees, the Court said, "shake the root of free and fair elections to a large degree". Will the politicians listen when, further shaking the root of democracy, they are manoeuvring to put political parties outside the scope of the Right to Information Act?

In the circumstances, we cannot be sure if the Supreme Court will succeed in its latest move to cleanse the legislatures of criminal elements. Its pronouncements are unambiguous -- that MPs and MLAs will stand disqualified the moment they are convicted; the provision that allows them to retain their position by filing an appeal is invalid. The Court also ruled that a person who is in jail cannot stand for elections. These new norms are easy to misuse and therefore need finetuning, but they mark a welcome beginning.

The Election Commission had recommended many similar measures with a view to putting an end to legalised fraud. By adopting some of those recommendations, the Government could have helped keep criminal elements out. Instead it was party to outrageous malpractices -- jailed candidates holding dance-and-dinner parties inside high-security prisons, elected criminals going to Parliament under police escort to take oath and then returning to their cells. Such violations turned "the largest democracy in the world" into a farce.

The political class has of course welcomed the new judicial rulings. No doubt for public consumption. But the fact remains that every party without exception has goons and mafia dons in its "leadership" list. As many as 1406 MPs and MLAs in office today have criminal cases against them. Among them are big leaders who are already campaigning for prime ministership. They are not about to walk into the sunset just because the Supreme Court wants to keep criminals out of Parliament and Assemblies.

The strength of the criminal class is that it has become indistinguishable from the political class. The muscle power and the money the dons mobilise are obviously lifeblood for parties which, therefore, will look for ways to frustrate the law and cheat the voters yet again. The war is actually between politicians and the people, between evil and good, between those who exploit the country and those who love it.

Love must win.