Public Interest Foundation’s reactions to the recent pronouncements of the Courts and the order of the CIC

SC order on freebies in manifestos of political parties

Significantly, the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the verdict of 5 July 2013 directing the Election Commission of India (ECI) to frame guidelines for regulating the contents of election manifesto has observed that the manifestoes even if announced before the notification of election dates, should be brought within the code of conduct as an exception.  The order of the SC explicitly finds strength in Article 324 of the Constitution which entrusts the responsibility for conducting elections in a free and fair manner to the ECI.  It is a landmark decision to ensure transparency, accountability and level playing field to all the political parties. Unlike in India, all promises of financial nature during elections are subjected to serious scrutiny by the media, think tanks and the televised debate in other developing countries.  Political parties in India only compete with each other to upscale the ‘free’ products. If honestly implemented, the political parties would not resort to the divisive policies and freebies to attract the “vote bank”. The most serious challenge before the Election Commission is its capacity to enforce various rules and regulations and also model code of conduct. The efficacy of powers granted to the ECI is seriously compromised in the absence of a specific provision for imposing penalty on defaulting political parties.  The Apex Court judgement of 10 May 2002 states that the present act and rules do not empower the ECI to de-register a political party. In the absence of any regulation on parties, the nation risks an atmosphere of ruthless politics with little or no public accountability.  Therefore, the Law Ministry without further delay should at least initiate legal reforms based on ECI proposal on issues which are non-controversial.

SC order on those convicted MPs, MLAs and MLCs will be disqualified unless an appeal is pending

The path-breaking judgement of the Hon’ble Supreme Court on 10 July 2013, which strikes down Section 8(4) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 restores the intent of Section 8(3) of RPA, 1951, which disqualifies a person convicted of any offence and sentenced to imprisonment for not less than two years from contesting elections and the disqualification is for a period of six years.  However, the Bench has recognized the powers of the appellate courts to stay the convictions under Section 389(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code.  The historic role of liberating of Indian legislative bodies from the criminals is a commendable contribution of the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

The striking down of the sub-section 8(4) of the RPA, 1951 is being widely debated on all forms of communication networks.  Even so, a straightforward analysis has been caught up in the interpretations leaning toward the subject of rising criminals in politics, which is exclusive to the declaration of sub-section 8(4) of the RPA, 1951 as ultra-vires the Constitution.  The judgment has only affirmed that the Parliament has no power to enact sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the RPA, 1951 vis-a-vis Article 102(i)(e) and 191(i)(e) of the Constitution.

Crucial to the judgment of the SC regarding Section 8(4) of RPA, 1951 is that it solely relates to disqualification after conviction.  The stage of conviction in majority of the cases is not reached because of the heavy pendency at the court level and deliberate efforts of the accused to delay the judicial process.  It is because of this reason that Justice Verma Committee Report on Amendments to Criminal Law, 2013 had proposed amendment to Section 8(1)(a) of the RPA, 1951 with the inclusion of offences punishable under the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.  This proposal needs to be urgently adopted for defining serious and heinous offences where the term of punishment amounts to an imprisonment of five years or more resulting in disqualification of candidates on charges being framed by the court.  This would require amendments to Sections 8(1), 8(2) and 8(3) of the RPA, 1951. The establishment of Special Fast Track Courts for time bound disposal of cases of the candidates charged with serious and heinous offences is a necessity that complements toward efficacious implementation of the judgement as it could act as a deterrent to those with cases of criminal offences pending against them in the court from contesting elections in order to avoid a speedy and time-bound adjudication of the case.  These Fast Track Courts should be enabled to take up the cases of elected representatives to minimize political uncertainty in Parliament/State Assemblies.

SC order that those in jail cannot contest

Although this verdict of the Hon’ble Supreme Court is in absolute sync with upholding of the Constitutional morality of India’s democratic order, the judgement requires a review of the Court in the present fractious political climate marred by mounting criminalization. It is inferred that in the reading of the Representation of People Act, 1951, the Court could have inadvertently missed the potential of the words of the judgement to be blatantly abused and misused by competing political parties during elections. For instance, the arrest of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in 2012 on serious charges of sedition for his anti-corruption cartoon is a reflection on the umbrage the nation felt at the abuse of law, especially by the political class. Extreme caution in the use of law and its language is demanded at a volatile situation of present parliamentary order. The judgement should be urgently reviewed to examine the need for any possible amendments for clarity on the subject.

Allahabad HC order on caste-based rallies

The judgement of the Allahabad is considered widely as a profanation of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution to the citizens of India with respect to the right to assemble peacefully without arms under Article 19(1)(b) of the Constitution. This Fundamental Right can be restricted by law only in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of the country. It is impossible to feign that a caste-based rally is not essentially the quintessential stroke in the wheel of social justice. It is pivotal to define a caste-based rally. Could a rally held by the nation to mark its indignation at an incident like that of Khairlanji massacre be called a caste-based rally? Those caste-based political rallies intended at demanding votes in an election are dealt under electoral offence and they don’t demand absolute ban on the rallies.

CIC order to bring political parties under the ambit of RTI

The Central Information Commission  on 2 June 2013 have given a decision that the listed political parties, i.e. AICC/INC, BJP, CPIM, CPI, NCP and BSP are public authorities under Section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005. Thus, requiring pro-active disclosure put in the public domain.  It also grants right to the citizens to seek information from the listed political parties.  This order mainly seeks disclosure of financial nature, donations, funding of election which, in some manner, is already required by the ECI.  It is expected that the parties would not be required under RTI to provide rationale for selection of candidates, internal management of the party etc.  Perhaps, there is a case for clarification regarding the nature of information to be made available under RTI.  This would soften the all-round opposition to the pro-active disclosure and the political parties ganging up to challenge the decision may be dissuaded.

By Nripendra Misra, Director, Public Interest Foundation and Annapoorna Karthika, Research Associate, PIF

(This article was published in Dainik Bhaskar on 1st August, 2013)