What makes criminals tick in politics

It is now well-known that the nexus between Indian politicians and criminals has assumed alarming proportions. Roughly a fourth of the members of the current Lok Sabha (the lower house of the national Parliament) face pending criminal charges.

A similar situation prevails in the various state assemblies. Many of the members of the national Parliament or state assemblies have been indicted with serious charges, including murder. Not surprisingly, this has attracted increasing attention in both the media as well as in academic research. It has also attracted official attention with the appointment of an independent commission to analyse the phenomenon and suggest remedial measures.

The only legal measure designed to prevent the influx of criminals into Parliament and the state assemblies is the Representation of People's Act, 1951. This Act specifies that candidates will be barred from contesting an election on conviction by a court of law. The period of disqualification is for six years from the date of conviction, or from the date of release from prison, depending on the severity of the charge. Unfortunately, this law hardly has any bite because of the well-known infirmities in the Indian judicial system. In particular, governments typically drag their feet when it comes to prosecuting "local elites". Even when cases are registered, inordinate judicial delay implies that these cases drag on, seemingly indefinitely.

This is why the Election Commission had proposed in 2004 that the Representation of the People Act, 1951 should be amended to disqualify candidates accused of offences which carry sentences of five years or more as soon as a court deems that charges can be framed against the person. However, the Lok Sabha itself would be required to pass appropriate legislation to implement the Election Commission's suggestion. Obviously, such legislation is against the interests of a large number of politicians, and so it is not surprising that the Election Commission's proposal has not been implemented.

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