x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Indian court cracks down on unfair elections

India's supreme court has taken steps to clean up the country's electoral process, but some politicians and commentators have criticised its decisions as excessive.

NEW DELHI // India's supreme court has taken steps to clean up the country's electoral process, but some politicians and commentators have criticised its decisions as excessive.

In separate rulings earlier this month, the court said that legislators of national and state assemblies would be automatically disqualified from office if they were convicted of any crime.

It also directed India's election commission to draft regulations that would bar political parties from seeking votes with promises to distribute free goods such as televisions, laptops and kitchen appliances if they won.

"Freebies shake the root of free and fair elections to a large degree," a two-judge panel wrote.

The country's electoral system is ripe for improvement, advocacy groups say.

Of the 4,807 sitting legislators in central and state assemblies, nearly a third - 1,460 - have criminal cases registered against them, according to the New Delhi non-profit Association for Democratic Reforms.

In some state assemblies, such as those in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the proportion of legislators facing charges stands at nearly 50 per cent. In Jharkhand, 74 per cent of the state's elected representatives are fighting criminal cases registered against them.

Anil Bairwal, the head of ADR, said the disqualification of convicted politicians from office was the court's "most significant" ruling.

"Earlier, political parties would field convicted candidates, convinced that they could simply appeal the ruling and confident that the cases would take years to resolve," he said. "Now, hopefully, parties will be deterred from even fielding candidates with cases pending against them."

The distribution of freebies to voters also has plagued elections, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu.

The court hesitated to find this practice unconstitutional. Pointing out, for example, that televisions could disperse helpful information, the judges found that governments could claim that the expense was for a public good.

Still, the court agreed that the offer of freebies "disturbs the level playing field and vitiates the electoral process" and urged the election commission and parliament to address the problem.

While politicians cautiously welcomed the disqualification of convicted criminals from office, they criticised as "judicial overreach" the measure barring politicians in police custody from running in elections.

"This is a drastic judgment that will infringe on the democratic rights of citizens," said the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said.

The Samajwadi Party, which forms the government of the state of Uttar Pradesh, promised to push parliament to annul the court's decision.

"The court cannot make law or stop parliament from making law," said Ramgopal Yadav, the Samajwadi Party general secretary. "It would mean the court is working as the third chamber of parliament, which is against the basic structure of the constitution."

An editorial in The Hindu newspaper said the supreme court's prohibition on anyone in police custody contesting elections was a case of "the remedy being worse than the disease".

"The Supreme Court has, in effect, left the door open for the practice of vendetta politics by ruling parties," the editorial said. "All that politicians in power now need to do to prevent rivals from contesting an election is to ask the police to file a case and effect arrest."

Mihir Sharma, the opinion-page editor of the Business Standard newspaper, has often accused the supreme court of encroaching upon the lawmaking prerogatives of the legislature. But, he said yesterday, he did not see a case of "constitutional overreach" in its decisions.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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