SC: Winnability alone can’t dictate candidates’ choice

The Asian Age.  | Pramod Kumar

India, All India

All parties told to publicise details of candidates’ criminal records.

Supreme Court of India (Photo: PTI)

New Delhi: Expressing concern over the “alarming increase” in the number of candidates with criminal cases in the last four general elections, the Supreme Court on Thursday said that winnability cannot be the only criteria for fielding a candidate.

Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, heading a three-judge bench, said: “We have also noted that political parties offer no explanation on why candidates with pending criminal cases are selected as candidates in the first place.”

Directing all political parties to upload the details of their candidates’ criminal history on their websites, on the social media and in newspapers within 48 hours of thir selection or two weeks before the first date for filing of nominations, whichever is earlier, the court said: “Political parties will have to specify reasons for selecting candidates having pending criminal cases against them on their website.”

The details, the court said, must include the nature of the offences, and other particulars whether charges have been framed, the court before which proceedings are going on and the case number.

This information about the candidate, the court said, shall be published in one local vernacular newspaper and one national newspaper; official social media platforms of the political party, including Facebook and Twitter.

The parties must submit the same details to the Election Commission within 72 hours, the court said. If political parties failed to give the details, or the Election Commission was unable to implement the directive, it would be considered contempt of court, the judges said.

In 2004, 24 per cent of MPs had criminal cases pending against them. In 2009, that figure went up to 30 per cent; in 2014 to 34 per cent, and in 2019 as
many as 43 per cent of MPs have criminal cases pending against them, the court noted.

While only 15 per cent of MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha had declared serious criminal charges against them, the number for the new Lok Sabha has reached 29 per cent, signifying a 106 per cent increase in the past 10 years.

The reasons for selecting a candidate, the court said, “shall be with reference to qualifications, achievements and merit of the candidate concerned”, and not mere “winnability” at the polls”.

“The reason to select candidates should be based on merit and not winnability. Winnability can’t be the only justification,” the top court directed.

The verdict comes on contempt petitions filed by lawyer and BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay and others, drawing the court’s attention towards the non-compliance of its directions on September 25, 2018.

The court noted that the contempt petition raises “grave issues regarding the criminalisation of politics in India”.

Exercising its powers under Articles 129 and 142 of the Constitution, the court mandated political parties to give reasons for selecting candidates with pending criminal cases and why others “without criminal antecedents could not be selected as candidates”.

Speaking for the bench, that also comprised Justices S. Ravindra Bhat and M. Ramasubramanian, and referring to the documents placed before the court and submissions by lawyers, Justice Nariman said over the past four general elections, there was an “alarming increase” in the incidence of criminals in politics.

From 2004 onwards, the percentage of MPs facing non-serious criminal charges have been between 12 per cent to 15 per cent, with 14 per cent of MPs in the 17th Lok Sabha facing such charges.

However, a look at the percentage of MPs facing serious charges shows that the number goes up with every general election.

A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by then Chief Justice Dipak Misra (since retired) had directed political parties to publicise the criminal record of the candidates fielded by them so that people could make an informed choice while exercising their franchise.

While directing political parties to give wide publicity about the criminal antecedents of the candidate being fielded by them, by posting these on their website, through the print and electronic, media, the court had said the time has come for Parliament to to enact a law to cleanse the polluted stream of politics by prohibiting people with criminal antecedents in the political system.

Observing that the “nation eagerly waits for such legislation” to curb the entry of politicians with criminal antecedents, the court had said in 2018 “the sooner the better, before it becomes fatal to democracy”.

“The time has come that Parliament must make a law to ensure that persons facing serious criminal cases do not enter the political stream,” the court said in 2018.

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