If we have criminals in Parliament, we will have criminals on the streets

On Thursday 22 August, a young journalist was brutally gang raped in Lower Parel, Mumbai.

On the same day, the Union Cabinet of India, cleared a proposal to amend the Representation of People’s Act (RPA), in order to negate a recent landmark Supreme Court judgement, that disqualified legislators convicted of crimes.

The correlation between the two events, is a tragic reflection of the situation that India finds itself in today.

The proposed amendment to the RPA deserves a brief explanation.

On July 10, 2013, the Supreme Court of India, in response to a Public Interest Litigation, gave an eminently sensible judgement, ruling that Section 8(4) of the RPA would be set aside. The RPA states that a convicted criminal cannot stand for elections.

However, as per Section 8(4), if a sitting MP or MLA is convicted while in office, then they will have 3 months from the date of such conviction, to file an appeal. Until the appeal is decided, no action will be taken to disqualify them, until the appeal is disposed. Unfortunately in India, given the speed of the judicial process, a convicted criminal can remain in office for several years while the appeal is being considered.

The Supreme Court ruled, that this Section went against the intention of the founding fathers of the nation and the spirit of our constitution, which was to debar criminals. In the view of the Supreme Court, if a sitting legislator felt he was being unfairly prosecuted, he could seek protection by staying the conviction; however a blanket protective clause, as provided by Section 8(4) was ultra vires.

As a consequence of the 10 July judgement, Section 8(4) was struck down with immediate effect. Any legislator who is henceforth convicted of a crime attracting a sentence of more than two years, will be immediately disqualified, his seat declared vacant, and he will be debarred for the next 6 years from contesting for elections. The Supreme Court also ruled that anyone in police or judicial custody (i.e. in jail) would be debarred from standing for elections.

Given that 30%* of our MP’s & MLA’s have criminal cases against them, this ruling was greeted with relief by citizens across the country.

(Source *: Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) statistics: 162 MP’s in the present Lok Sabha, 40 MP’s in the Rajya Sabha and 1258 sitting MLA’s, have self-declared criminal cases pending against them.)

Unfortunately, the reaction of all major political parties to the judgement was very negative. Perhaps because, in our political system, we have come to believe, that candidates with criminal cases against them, have a better chance of being elected, or that their criminal record does not matter to the voters.

ADR statistics show that political parties, shockingly gave tickets to 74% of candidates with criminal records, for a second time, despite having information on their criminal background from a previous election.

MP’s (who have otherwise been unable to agree on any matter of national importance in the past 4 years) gathered to protest the Supreme Court judgement, at an all-party meet on Aug 1. The Indian press reported an extra-ordinary show of solidarity, as leaders of various parties, cutting across party lines, asked for amendments that would overturn the apex court’s ruling, on the grounds that it challenged the supremacy of Parliament.

The Cabinet proposal to amend the RPA, was then swiftly moved forward – ironically, and tragically for India, on the very same date as the Shakti Mills gang-rape.

What does this mean for us ?

A week ago, a highly educated young man who had studied at an Ivy League Business school in the USA was discussing politics with me. He argued passionately in favour of a certain national political leader of a certain national political party both of which shall go unnamed.

India is at a tipping point” he said, “and a fractured mandate is dangerous for our country. Every vote that goes to the xxx symbol is a vote for xxx.” However, when I sought to discuss the credentials of the local candidate in his constituency, he dismissed this saying “It does not matter who the local candidate is – he could be a rapist for all I care”

This then, is where we find ourselves. As the grief and rage over heinous attacks on innocent women like Nirbhaya and the young photo-journalist mount, it is worth reflecting on how we reached this point.

It is self-evident that :

If we have criminals in Parliament, then we will have criminals on the street.

– If the law-maker is a law-breaker, and makes laws to protect himself, then the citizen has no protection.

If Police reforms that will empower the police force to serve citizens, rather than politicians, have still not been implemented, despite repeated strictures by the Supreme Court since 2006, then the citizen has no hope.

Is there a solution ?

I believe there is. Clearly we can send the right message to political parties in the next election, by voting for candidates without a criminal record.

However, social media gives us the opportunity, to send them that message today.

With 78 million Indians on Face book, 20 million on Twitter and 22 million on LinkedIn, we have a voice. We also have the means of instantaneously and effortlessly, reaching senior leaders in the major parties, each of whom sees social media as an important tool of communicating with us.

So let’s send them the message :

We do not want criminals in Parliament – so there should be NO amendments to the RPA !