Disentangling politics and crime

Expressing concern over the growing intersection of crime and politics, the Supreme Court (SC) has ordered political parties to publish the details of their candidates, with criminal charges, on their websites and social media platforms, and in newspapers. The parties must also clearly outline the nature of the charges, and explain why these candidates have been given tickets. This information must be made public, and a compliance report sent to the Election Commission (EC), within a specified period of time — and the failure to do so could be read as contempt. The order comes in the wake of the failure to effectively implement a 2018 court order which laid down similar, though somewhat more limited, guidelines.

The presence of politicians with criminal antecedents distorts democracy. A weak criminal justice system means that those accused of crimes — including heinous ones, such as murder and rape — are able to find ways to prevent a final judgment for years. They emerge as locally influential figures, who have illegally garnered resources. They develop a nexus with existing political leaders, the police machinery, and then branch off into newer kinds of business activities, which depend on State patronage. They, then, enter politics. Many win. For these legislators, public interest is not a priority.

The SC order is well-intentioned. It will force political parties to be more transparent. The compliance requirement is particularly significant, because it imposes tangible costs on parties if they fail to provide the requisite information and gives additional power to the EC. But it is also important to underline the limits of the order and the scope of misuse. Incumbent governments have shown a tendency to target political rivals, misusing law enforcement agencies. It is important that the SC order does not reinforce this trend. Till candidates are convicted, they must be treated as innocent. The criminalisation of politics also has deep roots. As political scientist Milan Vaishnav has explained, there is a supply side issue, where such individuals seek to enter politics for preservation and expanding wealth, and a demand side issue, where the dependence of parties on illegal finance is high, and where voters see many such individuals as capable of “getting work done”. Therefore, unless there are reforms in the criminal justice system which lead to quick judicial decisions, there is reform of the political finance regime and the dependence on wealth to win polls shrinks, and unless there is an overall reform in governance so that citizens are no longer dependent on locally influential representatives for work, politics and crime will remain enmeshed.

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