India’s parliament will be purged of criminal politicians who have previously been able to retain their seats despite being convicted of serious crimes, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday.
“This is a landmark decision of the court to clean up [the] administration,” said Lily Thomas, one of the petitioners in the public interest litigation aimed at restoring honesty to India’s corrupt politics.
According to data compiled after the last general election by National Election Watch and the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), two pressure groups, 162 of the 543 members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, had criminal cases against them – including serious charges such as rape, murder and kidnapping.
The Supreme Court decision means that a sitting MP will henceforth be disqualified immediately from parliament upon conviction in a serious criminal case.
The same ban on convicts already applies to parliamentary candidates, but until now sitting MPs enjoyed a three-month reprieve and could delay expulsion indefinitely provided they filed an appeal.
However, the ruling is not retrospective and so will not apply to convicted MPs currently in parliament.
Early reactions from Indian politicians were mixed. Some complained that they would face frivolous or malicious cases designed to keep them out of parliament. But the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist opposition to the incumbent coalition led by Congress, said it supported in principle any measure “that involves purifying and strengthening our political process”.
India’s democracy, serving a population of 1.3bn, is the world’s largest, but the country’s national and state-level politics have long been riddled with corruption and vote-buying.
“The nexus between politics and criminals is getting worse and worse, election after election,” I.C. Dwivedi, a member of ADR, said last year after a row over the appointment as a minister of a man accused of murder and kidnapping in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
The national parliament in New Delhi is also dysfunctional at times. Last September, Manmohan Singh, the Congress prime minister, accused the BJP of a “negation of democracy” for disrupting the monsoon session of parliament. Parliamentary proceedings are frequently suspended amid shouting and protests both inside and outside the chamber of the lower house.
Indians will go to the polls in the next general election by May next year, and politicians are already beginning to focus as much on politicking as on policy making.
Bypassing the normal parliament process, the Congress-led government last week promulgated an emergency ordinance to create a $21bn-a-year national food security programme– which critics have called an unaffordable populist giveaway ahead of the election.
The food security bill has stoked an increasingly acrimonious debate between leftwing economists who favour more public spending and redistribution and liberals who argue that the best way to help the poor is to cut the budget deficit, promote investment and create jobs.
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