Business Standard / New Delhi December 04, 2006
Two MPs, one of them a Cabinet minister, convicted of murder and culpable homicide, respectively, within the space of two days—it could only happen in India, perhaps. If this is the state of Parliament, one shudders to think who might be gracing the state legislatures. That the country is collectively hanging its head in shame matters not a whit to the largest political parties, the Congress and the BJP. Their spokesman are busy trotting out technical explanations such as the law about conviction, political excuses such as the compulsions of coalitions and, worst of all, democracy (anyone is free to contest) as the reason why these people were not just in Parliament but one of them in the Cabinet as well. To be fair to Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is one of the convicted politicians, he had been acquitted by the Sessions Court when he was given a ticket to contest the general elections in 2004; it is on appeal to the High Court that he has been convicted of having caused the death of a person, though unintentionally. In contrast Shibu Soren, who was the Cabinet minister, has been convicted under Section 302, which is murder with intent. The victim was his own secretary and it is a sordid story of blackmail, which provides tangential comment on some of the people in the civil service.
When the country’s politics was cleaner, its economy was in the doldrums. So it is truly ironic that, just when India is beginning to show its spurs on the economic front, its politics is descending into stygian depths. This points to systemic and social flaws that cannot but impact national events; indeed, they already do—once out of the metros and big cities, the nexus between politics and criminality is a daily reality for people. There is the formal system of executive power, and there is the informal exercise of real power, frequently outside the framework of laws and legality. The question is which will swallow the other. Meanwhile, the dichotomy already affects the way the world sees us—we don’t do well on the corruption perception index, for instance.
Surely the time has come for the political parties to make a very simple rule: no one, never mind how “tall” a leader he is, will be permitted to contest elections as long as a final verdict has not been delivered on the charges he faces. If Mr Advani could declare that he would not contest elections till he was cleared of the “hawala” charge, why shouldn’t that become formal policy for the party as a whole? Politicians have tried to wriggle past the issue by saying that those in office bring false charges against their rivals in the opposition and, on the other, that the law allows a person to contest as long he or she has not been convicted (“innocent until proven guilty”). The third argument is that legal processes are too long-drawn-out to make this practicable. It is hard to argue that these arguments do not hold weight, but then this combination of arguments confers what amounts to a virtual immunity to politicians. In any case, there are solutions to such problems—place the police under the magistracy and not the executive, as the French do, so that charge sheets cannot be framed under political pressure; and have a fast-track justice system for those who have been legislators or parliamentarians.