Just a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged the criminalisation of politics in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday during his reply to the debate on the President’s address, an opportunity to walk the talk materialised. Minister of state for chemicals and fertilizers Nihal Chand was issued notice by a Rajasthan court on Thursday asking him why a 20-year-old woman’s complaint of rape against him be not reopened. Though the police had given him a clean chit by filing a closure report and a magistrate court rejected the woman’s protest petition, her revision petition before a sessions court had prompted the court to summon Chand to ascertain his views.
Though the court is yet to take a prima facie view, the existence of serious allegations against a Central minister, in a climate of extreme gender violence being reported from many parts of the country, is reason enough for Chand to step down from public office.
In his speech, Modi had noted that citizens were pointing fingers at criminals entering Parliament. His suggestion to restore Parliament’s credibility was sensible: approaching the Supreme Court to seek fast-tracking of trials involving accused legislators and completing them within a year. “Those guilty will go to jail and those innocent can move with respect and hold their head high,” he said. Drawing a logical conclusion, Modi noted that quick trials would force the guilty out of Parliament and parties would accommodate only taint-free MPs to ensure that hard-won seats are not lost. While the Prime Minister’s detailed statement on criminalisation and corruption offers hopes of an imminent cleansing of Parliament, the recent general elections and its immediate aftermath betray a hesitation to synchronise actions and words.
Of the 282 BJP Lok Sabha MPs, 98 had self-declared criminal cases while 63 of these MPs had serious criminal cases against them like murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping and dacoity. The induction of Sanjeev Baliyan, accused of inciting the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar last year by addressing a mahapanchayat defying prohibitory orders, as a minister also explains the proliferation of those with criminal cases in Parliament. In most criminal and corruption cases involving politicians there is a standard line that parties mouth: political victimisation. In Baliyan’s case, the BJP has termed him the victim of a witch-hunt by the UP government. For Nihal Chand, a defence based on the court merely summoning him and having not made any adverse observations against him was deployed. It is this inventing of excuses to exculpate accused legislators from criminal and corruption charges that has undermined Parliament’s credibility and forced civil society to petition the judiciary to step in.
The Prime Minister by requesting the Supreme Court to expedite trials — already initiated through an apex court judgment in March when it directed day-to-day proceedings and completion of trials involving MPs and MLAs within a year of framing charges — has set the bar high. But by sparing tainted ministers, his penchant for lofty generalisation suffers from inaction when confronted with specifics. Facing a trial expeditiously per se does not constitute constitutional morality; it is served better by resigning or spurning positions of power until the blot of criminality can be legally erased. With 282 MPs, the BJP has an embarrassment of riches, in numbers if not in experience, when it comes to staffing the ministerial council. The larger gains from sending out a strong message against gender violence and criminalisation of politics far outweigh the short-term setback, if any, of two tainted MPs losing their ministerial berths.