Lok Satta

Thursday, 26 September 2013 08:58

A travesty of the constitution and democracy

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The UPA government’s decision to promulgate an ordinance exempting convicted legislators from disqualification is a grotesque and unacceptable decision.

That we have to advance arguments against such an obviously absurd stand is an indication of the precipitous decline in standards of political behavior in the country. Here, we are not talking of people against whom FIRs are registered, or charges are pending. We are talking of protecting those who are convicted of a crime in a court of law! Given the influence and power prominent politicians and elected legislators wield, it is rare that FIRs are registered against them. As the police force is largely under the thumb of the legislators, such cases are usually buried without any investigation. Only a small number of FIRs registered against influential persons even result in the completion of investigation and framing of charges by the court. It takes years for the courts to try a criminal case. After all this, only six percent of criminal cases end in conviction, unless the accused confesses to the crime.

Now major political parties want even such a rare conviction to be disregarded, and are fighting against the disqualification of convicted legislators. The UPA government, which has acquired notoriety for its ineffectiveness and policy paralysis, is now flexing its muscles when it comes to protecting a convicted criminal’s right to continue in elective office. This is nothing but a declaration of war against the people. The government and political parties have lost the capacity to articulate the aspirations of the people who they represent; they are oblivious to their constitutional role and the rationale for their existence. The dictum appears to be: we are in power, we will do whatever benefits and pleases us, as long as we can get away with it.

The argument that a convicted person should have the right to represent people is ludicrous, if not so tragic. People have a right to credible representation. A legislator is elected to make laws. If such a legislator himself, is not merely a law breaker, but has also been convicted in a court after proving guilty beyond reasonable doubt in a notoriously permissive, slow and tortuous criminal justice system, then it is the height of absurdity to have him continue as a law maker.

See the irony of it. If the government’s efforts succeed, a sitting MLA or MP convicted of murder or rape in a future “Nirbhaya case” will continue to be in public office after conviction. All that he needs to do is file appeal after appeal. In a system where it takes years to dispose of appeals, the legislator can never be unseated during his term. That parties and politicians have the temerity to claim such a right for convicted legislators is something only a fertile Kafkaesque imagination can concoct.

One seemingly reasonable but bogus argument advanced is that politicians convicted of crimes related to political agitations may be ‘unfairly’ disqualified. This silly argument is a throwback to the colonial era when violation of law, and obstructive, sometimes violent methods of agitation were condoned and glorified as part of the struggle against an oppressive, foreign ruler. But once we have constitutional rights and the power to anoint or dethrone a government through vote, we cannot resort to forcible bandhs, rasta rokos, rail rokos, arson, stone-pelting and violence. The constitution guarantees us liberty to express peaceful, non-obstructive dissent. To claim the divine right to resort to violence as part of a political agitation is a recipe for anarchy and economic chaos. How can parties then argue that conviction in a crime related to a political agitation should elevate a person to the status of a hero? In any case, there is no known case of conviction of an incumbent legislator for offences related to a bandh or rasta roko in a political agitation.

This ill-advised ordinance has further undermined the credibility of our political system. Already large segments of urban youth, middle classes and women are seething with anger and contempt for politics. They have developed deep distaste bordering on hatred for parties, politicians and government leaders. The government and parties have acted not only immorally, but have chosen a singularly inappropriate issue to defy public opinion. This further erodes the legitimacy of politics and legislatures.

The whole episode stinks of the failure of leadership and a complete collapse of sane elements in the government. After all this, in any case the Supreme Court will quash the ordinance. The court’s 10 July verdict holding Section 8 (4) of the RP Act, 1951 is unassailable. The court gave its verdict largely on technical grounds, relying on the constitutional provisions relating to the Parliament’s power to make a law on disqualification. The court held that Articles 101 & 102, and 190 & 191 do not give power to Parliament to provide different criteria for disqualification of those who are elected legislators, compared to the rest of the citizens. Now this ordinance is bound to be challenged before the court. The court will also have to rely on Article 14 which guarantees equality before the law and equal protection of the laws to all citizens.

The criticism that courts are sometimes usurping executive and legislative powers, and are overreaching is a legitimate one. But in this case, the court is perfectly right in quashing Section 8 (4) of the RP Act. In the days to come, the court will have to hold this ordinance as unconstitutional. This will be a well-deserved rebuke for the UPA government and the political class, whose failure of judgment and leadership is as pronounced as their perfidy and arrogance. The net result will be a further decline in the authority and legitimacy of the Parliament, government and political parties. Whoever advised them to promulgate the ordinance has done a great disservice to them. With friends like that, the government and parties do not need enemies.

Courtesy: Tehelka