The Supreme Court on Tuesday refused to disqualify politicians against whom criminal charges are pending from contesting elections, and left it to Parliament to frame an appropriate law.
A five-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra was hearing a batch of petitions seeking the disqualification of politicians from contesting elections once charges are framed against them. On August 28, the Supreme Court reserved its verdict in the matter.
“We are not in a position to add disqualification of candidates on filing of chargesheet in criminal cases,” Misra said, while reading out the order. Besides Misra, the Constitution bench comprised Justices Rohinton Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra.
The court has told Parliament to empower the Election Commission. “National interest demands parliament enacts such legislation and the country awaits such a legislation,” the court said, according to NDTV. Parliament must enact a law to ensure that candidates with criminal antecedents do not enter public life. “It’s the responsibility of all to enforce the law,” Misra added.
Expressing its concern at the criminalisation of politics, the court issued a slew of directions to political parties as well as the Election Commission. Candidates contesting must declare their criminal antecedents to help the voter make an informed choice, the court said, according to Bar and Bench. Political parties were told to publish the criminal pasts of their candidates on their websites and publicise it.
The petitions were filed by NGO Public Interest Foundation, former Chief Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh, and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ashwini Upadhyay. The NGO’s plea said there were 34% legislators with criminal cases against them after the last election and that it was quite impossible that Parliament would introduce any law to stop the “criminalisation of politics”. Upadhyay’s plea demanded a lifetime ban on convicted politicians with the aim of decriminalising politics.
In August, Attorney General KK Venugopal, who appeared for the Centre, told the court that a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty and added that the court cannot restrict a person’s right to vote, which also includes his right to contest. The court’s intention is laudable, Venugopal said, but added that the court cannot create a law to cleanse the political system.
The court had earlier observed that the Supreme Court cannot legislate for Parliament. The court had also asked if the Election Commission can form a rule to make political parties announce the candidate’s criminal past before the elections to ensure the public can make an informed choice.
The Election Commission has often said that it supported the idea of preventing convicts from contesting elections for life and barring their entry into the judiciary and legislatures. At present, politicians convicted of crimes that carry a prison term of more than two years cannot contest elections for six years after they leave prison.
In March 2016, a three-judge bench had referred the matter to the current bench while asking it to consider if a legislator facing a criminal trial should be “disqualified at conviction or at the framing of charges in the case?”