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NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Monday said “it was worrisome” that convicted politicians, debarred by law from contesting elections, could head political parties and select candidates who possibly could be part of governance afterpolls. “If a convicted person cannot contest elections under the Representation of the People Act, how can he float or head a political party and select candidates for contesting elections,” a three-judge bench led by CJI Dipak Misra asked even as the Election Commission, through counsel Amit Sharma, supported a PIL by advocate Ashwini Upadhyay seeking a ban on convicted persons from heading political parties.
Sharma said the EC had been endorsing this stand from 1998 but the commission did not have unilateral power to bar convicted persons from heading political parties. He said if Parliament amended the RP Act and brought in such a provision, the EC would take steps to implement it. The bench appeared determined to keep elections clean when it said, “Ostracising corruption from the purity of election is the avowed object of law. The Supreme Court in its series of judgments has furthered this object. What one cannot do (contest elections) individually, he cannot be permitted to do it (select candidates) collectively (as head of a political party).”
The bench cited the SC judgment in Lily Thomas case in which the court had quashed a provision of RP Act which permitted convicted MPs and MLAs to retain their seat if they merely appealed against their conviction in a higher court.
With the SC quashing the protective provision, MPs and MLAs now attract immediate disqualification upon conviction and sentence for two years or more. In December, the PIL had come for preliminary hearing before the same bench, which had asked, “How far can the courts go? Let the government and Parliament look into this. Can we stop a convicted person from heading a political party? Will it not be incongruent with the right to free speech? Can the court restrain a convicted person from propagating his political views?”
The petitioner complained that a person convicted of serious criminal offence could form a political party and head it despite being barred from contesting elections. “For instance, Lalu Prasad, O P Chautala and V K Sasikala have been convicted for major criminal offences but still hold high posts in political parties,” he had said. Upadhyay’s counsel Sidharth Luthra pressed the advantage of the SC’s changed tack and said purity of election process needed to be safeguarded at all costs.
The bench said, “A convicted person can surely forge association with others for philanthropic purposes and can even open a school. There is no difficulty in this. But when they come in the field of governance, that becomes worrisome.” During the hearing on December 2, Luthra had cited earlier SC judgments indicating a judicial desire to make elections transparent and free from criminal elements and money power. “Proliferation of political parties has become a major concern as Section 29A allows a small group of people to form a political party by making a simple declaration,” he had said.
“At present, only about 20% of registered political parties contest elections and remaining 80% parties are on paper, creating unwarranted pressure on conduct of elections requiring huge spending from public exchequer,” he added.