The Big Story
The Election Commission on Wednesday told the Supreme Court that it favoured banning politicians convicted of serious crimes from contesting elections for the rest of their lives. The commission was responding to the court after Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ashwini Upadhyay filed a petition demanding a lifetime ban on convicted politicians with the aim of decriminalising politics. The Election Commission had earlier been unclear about the issue, telling the Supreme Court in July that Upadhyay’s plea was “not adversarial” and that it supported the idea of decriminalising politics. At the time, the Supreme Court chided the panel for not being clear in its response and demanded that it spell out an official position on a lifetime ban.
The Commission has now done so. Currently, politicians who are convicted of crimes that carry a jail sentence of more than two years are barred from contesting elections for six years after they leave prison. If the Election Commission’s recommendations become the rule, they would not be permitted to contest elections ever again. For example, this would mean that former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s VK Sasikala would be barred from fighting elections.
Upadhyay’s plea was, to some extent, a demand for parity. He pointed out that public servants are debarred from holding any government job if they are convicted even for a year, “but people’s representatives are totally immune from such deterrent penalties”. His plea, however, is predicated on the suggestion that the current rules for disqualification of Members of Parliament or state assemblies for six years is ultra vires the Constitution or beyond its scope.
The Centre, replying to the petition in April, opposed Upadhyay’s view on legislative grounds, saying simply that the courts have no cause to intervene when Parliament has created a law to this end. That is a sensible view and one the court ought to take into consideration despite the Election Commission’s recommendation. But even if Parliament were to consider a lifetime ban, that would be problematic.
There is a reason that India’s judicial system does not itself have true life sentences. Prison terms in the country are meant to be reformative, not punitive. Although reality may not match the intention, the idea of putting someone in jail is not just to punish them but to provide them with the conditions to re-enter society. A lifetime ban flies in the face of this, since it gives convicted politicians no chance or incentive to reform themselves. At the same time, bans aren’t exactly always useful either, as the continued political involvement of Lalu Prasad Yadav shows.
Considering all this, it is important for India to uphold the principles of its judicial system. We seek to reform and not punish. Following that, voters are wise enough to judge politicians who have finished their jail terms. The current system, a limited ban of six years – meant to be a deterrent and also a means of preventing the immediate use of coercive criminal power – seems both sensible and appropriate.
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Girish Shahane says that Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was a bigot not just by modern standards but also by the ones held by his peers and predecessors.
“Should we not criticise sportspersons who take money to fix matches unless they do so in most games they play? Should we defend sexual predators on the grounds that the vast majority of their interactions with women are respectful? Should we object to a serial killer being called a psychopath because we can’t be sure why he targeted particular victims but not hundreds of other people he met? It is important to push back against the Hindutvavadi idea of Muslim rulers as genocidal maniacs who destroyed shrines indiscriminately. But it is imperative we do it without explaining away Muslim religious prejudice where it exists. That’s what clear eyed thinkers like Tagore, Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar managed in their assessment of medieval India. For all their differences, none of them turned apologists for past zealotry in their effort to counter contemporary biases. It’s a pity that Truschke fails to distinguish between Nehru’s assessment of Aurangzeb and that of Hindu right-wingers.”