The Representation of the People Act, 1951 (RPA, 1951), is a legislation that governs the conduct of elections across India. Its primary objective is to safeguard national security and ensure the smooth functioning of democracy by imposing restrictions on the candidacy of individuals with criminal backgrounds.
Several provisions within the Representation of the People Act, 1951 address the disqualification of legislators, including:
• Disqualification upon conviction: According to the RPA, 1951, individuals convicted of offenses and sentenced to imprisonment for a minimum of two years are disqualified from the date of conviction. The disqualification continues for an additional period of six years after release.
• Prohibition of illegal activities: Violation of laws such as the Foreign Exchange (Regulation) Act, the Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Dowry Prohibition Act, and others can also lead to disqualification under the RPA, 1951.
• Corrupt practices: The RPA, 1951, specifies certain corrupt practices outlined in Section 123, which result in disqualification for individuals found guilty of such practices.
• Anti-social activities: Disqualification may occur if an individual is convicted of offenses related to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, or if they are involved in acts such as rape, cruelty towards their spouse, promoting untouchability, among others.
• Failure to disclose election expenses: Failure to disclose election expenses as required by the Act can also lead to disqualification.
Despite these provisions, the issue of criminalization of politics remains a significant concern in India. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), the percentage of Lok Sabha MPs with criminal cases increased from 34% in 2014 to 43% in 2019. This trend undermines public trust and hampers the effectiveness of the democratic process in ensuring good governance.
The persistence of criminalization of politics in India can be attributed to several factors:
• Focus on winnability: Candidates with criminal records often perform well due to their ability to finance their own campaigns and bring substantial resources to their respective political parties, overshadowing their negative public image.
• Caste and community dynamics: Despite awareness of the criminal history of candidates, a significant portion of voters tend to prioritize caste and community interests when casting their votes.
• Lack of political will: Despite attempts to amend the RPA, 1951, there exists an unspoken understanding among political parties that hinders the formulation of stricter laws to curb criminalization of politics.
• Inefficiency of the Election Commission and the Judiciary: The Election Commission lacks sufficient authority to take strict action in cases such as bribery, while the Model Code of Conduct, which is not legally enforceable, is easily violated by candidates. Delays in judicial verdicts regarding criminal cases of elected representatives provide ample time for candidates to secure their positions.
To address the issue of criminalization of politics, the Election Commission of India and the Supreme Court have implemented measures such as the introduction of the NOTA (None of the Above) option, establishment of special courts for trials against legislators, and the disclosure of details regarding criminal cases against political party candidates on their websites.
Additional electoral reforms are necessary, such as instituting the Right to Recall, bringing political parties under the purview of the Right to Information Act, and providing statutory backing to the Model Code of Conduct. These reforms aim to minimize the entry of individuals with criminal backgrounds into the democratic process, ensuring its integrity.