No easy fixes

Legal solutions to political problems are usually too blunt to be useful

The Supreme Court has decided that legislators who have been convicted must resign, rather than be allowed to sit through their terms as they appeal their cases. The Representation of the People Act gives serving MPs and MLAs a pass, if they are in the process of appealing which can take years, given the slow and overburdened judicial system. Since convicted candidates are prohibited from contesting elections anyway, this move would bring sitting MPs and MLAs on par with them. In the aftermath of the court's order, many have suggested that it signals a great clean-up of democracy. That optimism may be naive and somewhat premature.

For one, the impact of the court order may turn out to be small. The data that suggests that Parliament and state assemblies are increasingly rife with "criminal elements" refers largely to members who are charged with serious crimes, rather than those convicted. This is often because the charges are flimsy, and also because securing a conviction is more daunting and arduous when cases involve the politically influential. At the same time, the Supreme Court order also appears to repose excessive faith in the lower judiciary. Subordinate courts, which examine the facts of the case, produce judgments that are often overturned by appeals, and matters of precedent have to be settled over and over again by higher courts. Letting a legislator's immediate career depend on the order of the lower courts could potentially introduce greater arbitrariness and unfairness into the system. To be sure, the Supreme Court is only making an effort to check the creep of criminality in our legislatures. But there are limits to the judiciary's interventions to set democracy right.

On Thursday, the Allahabad High Court called a halt to caste-based rallies in Uttar Pradesh. While the court may be motivated by the desire to encourage democracy to transcend narrow identity concerns, it also seems to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of parties and partisanship, and the realities in which democratic politics is embedded in India. Caste-based mobilisations are based on legitimate sectional appeals. Caste has changed politics and it has itself been transformed and secularised by it. Caste politics has evolved, as is visible in UP, with most parties straining beyond their core constituencies, soldering together broader combinations. Both the Supreme Court judgment and the Allahabad High Court's order reflect a measure of impatience with the untidiness and imperfections of democracy. But the flaws in the political arena cannot all be fixed by an overzealous court. The best solutions can only come from within democratic politics, even if they take longer and seem less perfect.

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