Candidates with criminal antecedents| Parliament has exclusive jurisdiction to lay down disqualification for membership; Court cannot legislate: SC

Though criminalization in politics is a bitter manifest truth, which is a termite to the citadel of democracy, be that as it may, the Court cannot make the law.

Supreme Court: CJ Dipak Misra delivered the Judgment for the 5-Judge Constitution Bench comprising of himself and R.F. Nariman, A.M. Khanwilkar, Dr D.Y. Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, JJ. wherein the Court issued certain directions while disposing the petition concerning the question whether disqualification from the membership of the legislature could be laid down by the Court beyond Article 102 (a) to (d) and the law made by the Parliament under Article 102 (e) of the Constitution.

The 3-Judge Bench which originally heard the petition was of the view that the question needs to be addressed by a Constitution Bench. Thus, the present proceedings before the 5-Judge Bench. The petitioners led by Public Interest Foundation submitted that the lawbreakers should not become law makers and there cannot be a paradise for people with criminal antecedents in the Parliament or the State Legislatures. The petitioners were attuned to the principle of presumption of innocence. But they contended that the said principle is confined to criminal law and that any proceeding prior to conviction, such as framing of charge, for instance, can become the basis to entail civil liability or penalty. The petitioners, therefore, took the stand that debarring a person facing charges of serious nature from contesting an election does not lead to creation of an offence and it is merely a restriction which is distinctively civil in nature. Attorney General K.K. Venugopal refuted the submissions and urged that the Parliament to pass a legislation and can only recommend. Further, when there are specific constitutional provisions and the statutory law, the Court should leave it to the Parliament.

The Court was of the clear opinion that it cannot legislate. The Supreme Court, at the outset, perused Articles 102 and 191 of the Constitution and observed it to be clear as crystal that as regards the disqualification for being chosen as a member of either House of Parliament and similarly for a legislative assembly or legislative council of a State, the law has to be made by the Parliament. Reference was made to Lily Thomas v. Union of India, (2013) 7 SCC 653 and the Court was of the opinion that the view expressed therein was correct, for the Parliament has the exclusive jurisdiction to lay down disqualification for membership. It was noted that apart from the grounds of disqualification as mentioned in the said Articles, Parliament has provided certain other grounds under Sections 8, 8-A, 9, 9-A, 10 and 10-A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Apart from these, there are no other disqualifications and, as noticeable, there can be no other ground. Thus, disqualifications are provided on certain and specific grounds by the legislature. In such a state, the legislature is absolutely specific. In the words of the Court, It is clear as moon day and there is no ambiguity. The language of the said provision leaves no room for any new ground to be added or introduced.

On the issue of criminalisation of politics, the Court referred to earlier judgments. Rajya Sabha Reports, Law Commission reports, etc. and further discussed the role of Election Commission with respect to superintendence, direction, and control of elections. It was observed that Election Commission has the plenary power and its view has to be given weightage. That apart, it has power to supervise the conduct of free and fair election. However, the said power has its limitations. The Election Commission has to act in conformity with the law made by the Parliament and it cannot transgress the same. Analysis was also made of the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968 which deals with allotment classification, choice of symbols by candidates and restriction on the allotment of symbols. Observation of the Court in the matter was that when a candidate has been set up in an election by a particular political party, then such a candidate has a right under sub-clause (3) of Clause 8 to choose the symbol reserved for the respective political party by which he/she has been set up. An analogous duty has also been placed upon the Election Commission to allot to such a candidate the symbol reserved for the political party by which he/she has been set up and to no other candidate.

The Court finally referring to, inter alia, Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms, (2002) 5 SCC 294; Resurgence India v. Election Commission of India, (2014) 14 SCC 189; etc. was inclined to say that best available people, as is expected by the democratic system, should not have criminal antecedents and the voters have a right to know about their antecedents, assets and other aspects. In a constitutional democracy, criminalization of politics is an extremely disastrous and lamentable situation. The citizens in a democracy cannot be compelled to stand as silent, deaf and mute spectators to corruption by projecting themselves as helpless. The voters cannot be allowed to resign to their fate. Disclosure of antecedents makes the election a fair one and the exercise of the right of voting by the electorate also gets sanctified. It has to be remembered that such a right is paramount for a democracy. A voter is entitled to have an informed choice.

Keeping the aforesaid in view, the Court issued the following directions:

  • Each contesting candidate shall fill up the form as provided by the Election Commission and the form must contain all the particulars as required therein.
  • It shall state, in bold letters, with regards to the criminal cases pending against the candidate.
  • If a candidate is contesting an election on the ticket of a particular party, he/she is required to inform the party about the criminal cases pending against him/her.
  • The concerned political party shall be obligated to put up on its website the aforesaid information pertaining to candidates having criminal antecedents.
  • The candidate as well as the concerned political party shall issue a declaration in the widely circulated newspapers in the locality about the antecedents of the candidate and also give wide publicity in the electronic media. When we say wide publicity, we mean that the same shall be done at least thrice after filing of the nomination papers.

Furthermore, the Court recommended to the Parliament to bring out a strong law whereby it is mandatory for the political parties to revoke membership of persons against whom charges are framed in heinous and grievous offences and not to set up such persons in elections, both for the Parliament and the State Assemblies. This, in our attentive and plausible view, would go a long way in achieving decriminalisation of politics and usher in an era of immaculate, spotless, unsullied and virtuous constitutional democracy. As stated by the Court, the above directions were issued with immense anguish, for the Election Commission cannot deny a candidate to contest on the symbol of a party. A time has come that the Parliament must make a law to ensure that persons facing serious criminal cases do not enter into the political stream. It is one thing to take cover under the presumption of innocence of the accused but it is equally imperative that persons who enter public life and participate in law making should be above any kind of serious criminal allegation. It is true that false cases are foisted on prospective candidates, but the same can be addressed by the Parliament through appropriate legislation. The writ petition was disposed of accordingly. [Public Interest Foundation v. Union of India, (2019) 3 SCC 224, decided on 25-09-2018]

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