A landmark Supreme Court order that was expected to go a long way in ridding Indian politics of criminals appears to have had little or no impact. Hailed as a landmark electoral reform undertaken by the Supreme Court by exercising its constitutional powers, the 2020 order is turning out to be a damp squib.
Taking note of note of an “alarming” rise in candidates with criminal charges contesting elections, the Supreme Court in 2020 used its extraordinary powers and made it mandatory for all political parties to furnish reasons for putting up candidates with criminal antecedents in general and assembly polls. The court also made it obligatory for all parties to provide an explanation as to why those without criminal antecedents couldn’t be selected.
However, an analysis of data provided by the Association for Democratic Reforms for the past two elections in states that recently went to polls – Karnataka, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh – shows that there is no change in the mindset of political parties in fielding candidates with criminal antecedents despite the SC’s order. In fact, the number of candidates with criminal antecedents has only grown from previous elections.
In the Gujarat elections held in 2022, at least 330 candidates (20%) had criminal cases against them. This number stood at 253 (14%) in the Assembly elections held in 2017. The data shows a rise in the number of tainted candidates fielded by political parties.
Similarly, Himachal Pradesh, which went to polls with Gujarat last year, saw 94 candidates (23%) with criminal cases against them contesting elections. The number stood at 61 (28%) in the 2017 polls.
While compliance with the Supreme Court’s orders has been questionable, the reasons cited by political parties for fielding tainted candidates reveal how political parties are making a mockery of the law. ‘Well-known publicly accepted leader’, ‘highly dedicated’, ‘social worker’, ‘false FIR’ are among the many reasons cited by political parties for selecting candidates with criminal backgrounds.
An analysis of the ‘Format/Form C7’ — which requires political parties to publish information regarding the selection of candidates with criminal backgrounds along with the reasons for doing so in newspapers, social media platforms, as well as websites of political parties — for the recently concluded Karnataka elections shows that only 287 candidates with criminal backgrounds had published the form. Meanwhile, out of 220 candidates facing serious criminal cases, reasons were furnished for only 191 candidates.
The commonly cited reasons provided for selection of candidates having criminal backgrounds against those with a clean image were: ‘Well-known publicly accepted leader’, ‘highly dedicated individual’, ‘false FIR’.
The ADR report said that several parties “did not have a functional website” to publish details of candidates with criminal background along with reasons, or they were not uploaded on the websites and on social media platforms. Other discrepancies in form C7 of the candidates showed that 70 per cent of the candidates gave ‘word to word reasons’ for the selection of candidates of the BJP.
An earlier analysis of Form C7 for the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections held in December last year paints a similar picture. The analysis revealed that out of the 1,621 candidates contesting the Gujarat elections, only 141 candidates published Form C7.
The reasons cited for the selection of a candidate with criminal background included: ‘Well known publicly accepted leader and has been in responsible position attached to social service’, ‘senior and dedicated party worker’, and ‘charge has not been framed’, among others. The reasons behind why other individuals without criminal antecedents could not be selected included: ‘no other candidate was found of similar stature’, ‘no such prospect found to replace him’, ‘whatever charges are alleged in the chargesheet have no substance’.
In Himachal Pradesh too, the compliance was questionable as only 31 candidates published the C7 form. The reasons cited by political parties for selecting candidates with criminal cases included: ‘meritorious candidate’, ‘criminal case which seems to be politically motivated’, ‘well-known social worker’.
Same old, same old?
In August 2021, a top court bench of Justices R F Nariman and B R Gavai stated that criminalisation in politics was growing by the day, and appealed to lawmakers to come up with necessary legal provisions to fight this.
The bench had said that it had found nine political parties – Congress, BJP, JD(U), RJD, LJP, CPI(M), CPI, RLSP and NCP – guilty of contempt for not following in letter and spirit its February 13, 2020 direction to publish details of criminal cases against candidates fielded in Lok Sabha and Assembly polls.
Since the Bihar Assembly election was the first poll conducted after the issuance of its directions, it decided to take a “lenient view” and warned parties to be cautious in the future. It asked the Congress, BJP, JD(U), RJD, LJP, CPI and RLSP to deposit Rs 1 lakh each in an account created by the Election Commission of India (ECI) within eight weeks, and CPI(M) and NCP were asked to deposit Rs 5 lakh each in the account “since they have not at all complied with the directions issued by this court”.
‘Political parties must feel the pinch’
“For a political party, these things are of no consequence. This is nothing at all,” Jagdeep Chokkar, founder member of ADR, told Financial Express Online, when asked about Supreme Court asking political parties to pay fines amounting to Rs 1 lakh.
He also pointed to a petition filed by the ADR in November 2022 in the Supreme Court which made 48 political leaders, including BJP national president JP Nadda, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, BSP chief Mayawati, among others, as respondents, and sought contempt proceedings against them for not complying with earlier Supreme Court orders.
A Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud on March 17, 2023, dismissed the petition saying it was “not inclined to entertain” the contempt petition and asked ADR to “pursue the remedies” before the EC.
“We brought out 48 instances, Supreme Court did nothing. Political parties have to feel the pinch, they have to realise that they must follow the rule of law. Political parties are under the impression that they are above law. They keep on amending laws, and don’t follow the law…If the SC fined some political parties in one case, then should it not fine parties in another instance? But they haven’t done that,” he claimed.