A Round Table Conference was organized today, April 5, 2013, by Public Interest Foundation on the subject of Decriminalization of Politics. Public Interest Foundation has already filed a PIL before the Hon’ble Supreme Court along with Common Cause, Transparency International and Gandhian Satyagraha Brigade seeking direction by the judiciary to the Government of India to enact legislation so as to debar those charged with serious offence from contesting elections. The PIL also seeks the establishment of fast track court to expedite criminal cases of elected members. Further, it requests the Hon’ble Supreme Court to declare section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which provides a safe haven to elected representatives even after conviction in case an appeal has been preferred, as ultra vires.
The keynote addresses were delivered by Justice M N Venkatachaliah, former Chief Justice of India and Mr. Ashwani Kumar, Minister of Law & Justice. Mr. D P Tripathi and Mr. Dinesh Trivedi, Members of Parliament also made significant remarks highlighting the exigency to formulate concrete consensus on the subject. Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Shri V S Sampath and the former CEC Dr. S Y Quraishi made strong case for decriminalizing Indian politics and empowering Election Commission toward conducting free and fair elections.
Justice Venkatachaliah in his keynote address emphasized the urgency in placing the parliamentary process on sound tenets of democracy. He particularly emphasized the need for intra-party democracy in the political parties in nominating candidates with criminal antecedents. Acknowledging major reforms being canvassed for judiciary, Justice Venkatachaliah urged that reforms with respect to decriminalization of politics should not be delayed awaiting an holistic reforms in other institutions of democracy. He was of the view that a person charged with heinous offences and in which cognizance has been taken notice of by the court should not qualify to contest elections. He particularly disowned the idea benefitting to the election candidates till the conviction has been finally determined at level of the appellate court. He strongly affirmed that the plentitude of the powers of the Election Commission recognized by the Supreme Court should be adequately utilized, especially to curb the role of black money in elections. Concluding his observations, Justice asserted that the disenchantment of the common man with the democratic institutions of the country could be dramatically shifted solely by educating and rigorously registering the young voters of the country encouraging them to place faith in the country’s democracy. Law Minister Mr. Ashwani Kumar, agreeing on the broad agenda for electoral reforms, assured the participants that the reforms are high on his performance radar and he hopes to deliver concrete results at the earliest. He also conveyed that all the proposals received till now for electoral reforms have been sent to Law Commission and the Commission is expected to send concrete proposals after due consultation with the stake holders. However, he strongly argued against altering the presumptions of innocence that could potentially disqualify a candidate charged with a criminal offence in terms of the individual’s right to participate in the democratic process. He particularly drew the attention of the participants to the fact that unchecked authorization to institutions may be abused and the individual which is the nodal point of democracy.
The two Members of Parliament strongly argued for major structural changes and expressed strong discontent toward any attempt to tackle the problem in isolation and piecemeal manner. They were of the view that broader socio-economic changes and awareness should be the precursor before launching any major electoral reform relating to decriminalization. Mr. Dinesh Trivedi also drew attention to non-compliance of judicial pronouncements of Vohra Committee report which was given about 15 years back pointing out the unholy nexus between the criminals and politicians. CEC V S Sampath reiterated Justice Venkatachaliah’s view favouring the disqualification of individuals with criminal backgrounds from contesting elections. The CEC reasserted the demand to provide constitutional authority to Election Commissioners as a necessary precedence toward ensuring independence of the ECI. The broad consensus was that reforms must be introduced before the next General Elections failing which the role of criminals and black money would go unchecked and the future of democracy would be at peril.