The criminalisation of politics cannot be solved through merely court orders disqualifying individuals having criminal records from the election
No mechanism can be successful to drive criminals out of politics until political parties itself make efforts to cleanse their own homes. This has been evident in India's politics.
For decades, India's Supreme Court has been struggling to keep criminals away from politics. But, the record of alarming rise of criminals in politics shows the measures outlined by the apex court in its verdicts could not work effectively.
In 2004, only 24 percent of MPs had criminal cases pending against them. But 15 years down the line the number spiked to 43 percent in parliamentary election held last year.
The situation in state level elections is also worrisome.
Take the case of the recently held Delhi Assembly election. More than half the candidates had criminal cases against them. There has been a sharp jump in the number of members of legislative assembly (MLAs) with registered criminal cases.
In 2020, as many as 43 MLAs out of 70 declared criminal cases against them while in 2015, only 24 MLAs had criminal cases such as rape, attempt to murder and violence against women, according to a report by the news agency IANS citing the analysis of the Association of Democratic Reforms.
Yet, India's top court did not stop its efforts for decriminalising politics. On February 13, it came up with yet another landmark verdict.
Noting an "alarming increase of criminals in politics," it ruled that all political parties must publicise on their respective party websites, social media handles and in newspapers the details of candidates with criminal backgrounds who have been fielded to contest elections within a specified time period.
If any political party nominates a candidate with criminal record, the apex court also says, it must explain the reasons for such choice. It said these details should be published within 48 hours of the selection of the candidate or at least two weeks before the first date for filing of nominations, whichever is earlier.
The political party concerned, the top court says, shall then submit a report of compliance with these directives with the Election Commission within 72 hours of the selection of the said candidate.
The latest verdict is a continuation of its earlier verdict delivered two years ago.
Worried by the alarming rise of criminals in politics, the top court in a verdict asked for the enactment of a law to decriminalise politics. But the government did not act in line with the verdict.
More than two decades ago India's Election Commission and Law Commission recommended taking measures to drive criminals out of politics. But, but no action was taken on their recommendations.
The apex court, however, in 2002 ordered that candidates in all sorts of elections must disclose a set of information about themselves, including criminal and financial records. The Election Commission implemented the order. But, this did not make much change. It is because of voters who did not reject candidates despite knowing the candidates' criminal involvement.
In Bangladesh, there are some similarities. Following the apex court's verdict, the Election Commission a decade ago made it mandatory for candidates to disclose some information about themselves – criminal and financial records. The commission half-heartedly publicised candidates' information during the election. But many candidates facing criminal cases have been elected. In our case, we see few efforts on part of the political parties to bar people facing criminal cases from contesting the election.
One thing is common in both India and Bangladesh – candidates who have chances of winning the polls are given party tickets despite their dubious records. This has contributed to letting money and muscle power dominate politics. This is very ominous for politics and governance.
The impact of criminalisation of politics is enormous. In view of India's Supreme Court: "The country feels agonised when money and muscle power become the supreme power. Criminalisation of politics is an extremely disastrous and lamentable situation."
It reveals the low ethical and moral values of elected representatives, which leads to the enactment of arbitrary and discriminatory laws. Misusing power for personal gains and undermining the law of the land have become common phenomena. The judiciary also loses credibility since the courts fail to contain the menace. It affects the efficiency of the government and the parliament, ultimately leading to poor governance.
The criminalisation of politics also resulted in violence. As India's top court says, its presence was seemingly felt in its "strongest form" during the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts which were the result of a collaboration of a diffused network of criminal gangs, police and customs officials and their political patrons.
In our country, the rise of dreaded militant Bangla Bhai and the JMB in northern districts was possible for patronisation by political leaders. The rise of another militant group, Huji-B, would not have been possible had the outfit not enjoyed political patronage. The heinous grenade attack on an Awami League rally in 2004 to assassinate the then opposition leader Sheikh Hasina was also a manifestation of criminalisation of politics. There is no dearth of example of such violent activities thanks to criminalisation of politics.
It is undeniable that the quality of candidates contesting elections is important for better governance. But the criminalisation of politics cannot be solved through merely court orders disqualifying individuals having criminal records from the election.
Political parties are the major institutions for a democracy. Cleaning politics from criminal elements starts only by means of purifying political parties itself. So, the political parties must ring the bell.