Fielding Candidates in UP Elections: Field Day for Criminal Elements and Jailbirds

By Sudhir Kumar

Elections are the bedrock and lifeblood of democracy but also have a tendency to reveal its fault lines when the contestants are steeped in corruption and criminality and winnabilitybecomes the sole determinant in selection of candidates. The ongoing assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh are a grim reminder that a profusion of criminal candidates belonging to all the parties can rob democracy of its robustness and vitality.  

The list of candidates with criminal antecedents is both astounding and appalling as parties are gunning for a victory, fully aware that the results of the assembly elections in the state will have an important bearing on national politics. The onus for this culpability lies on all the major parties without exception, and all this is happening despite a string of landmark judgments by the country’s Supreme Court aimed at cleansing the country’s body politic of its Augean stables.

Out of 615 candidates in the first phase of Uttar Pradesh assembly elections on February 10 spanning 11 districts in 58 constituencies, a staggering 156 (25 per cent) declared criminal cases against themselves while filing nominations, reveals a report of the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR).

As for the second phase of elections, to be held on February 14 for 55 constituencies, as many as 147 candidates out of 586 (nearly 25 per cent) have criminal cases. Leading the clutch of these candidates is Samajwadi Party (SP) nominee and former minister Azam Khan who is in jail with 87 cases slapped on him. The next two spots also belong to this party with its nominees Naseer Ahmed Khan (30 cases), and Azam Khan’s son Abdullah Azam Khan.

Of the 156 candidates in the first phase, 121 are facing serious charges while 12 contestants have charges of crime against women slapped on them. There are six candidates who have murder charges against them while another 30 candidates have cases related to ‘attempt to murder’. Not only that, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD)’s Mohammad Yunus, a contestant from Bulandshahr, is facing cases related to rape. There are also 15 illiterate candidates in the fray.

These unflattering statistics are only for the first two phases of the elections to 403-member state assembly. The other phases are to be held on February 20, February 23, February 27, March 3 and March 7. The poll results will be declared on March 10 when counting of votes takes place in four other poll-bound states – Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur.

The ADR report also shows that 53 per cent (31) of the 58 constituencies in the first phase of polls are Red Alert constituencies. These are the constituencies where three or more contesting candidates have criminal cases.

The Akhilesh Yadav-led SP leads the pack of candidates with criminal antecedents in the first phase also. As many as 21 (75 per cent) out of 28 candidates have a criminal background, 17 of these having serious criminal cases against them. The RLD has fielded 17 (59 per cent) out of 29 candidates with a criminal background, and 15 of them have serious charges.

The BJP, which is eyeing for a second term in office for the Yogi Adityanath government, has also not much to crow about as 29 (51 per cent) of its 57 candidates are facing criminal charges, 22 of them having serious criminal cases.

The Sonia Gandhi-led Indian National Congress (INC) is not lagging behind, either. A total of 21 (36 per cent) out of its 58 candidates have a criminal background while Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has 19 (34 per cent) such candidates. Both the parties have 11 and 16 candidates with serious criminal charges against them, respectively. As for Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), it has fielded a total of 52 candidates, eight of which have criminal cases against them and five of these candidates having serious criminal charges.

The report reveals that 239 candidates have educational qualifications between Classes 5 and 12 while another 15 contestants are illiterates. Further, 38 candidates have declared themselves to be just literate. But in terms of financial assets, there is no dearth of ‘crorepatis’ or billionaires. Out of the 615 candidates analysed, 280 (46 per cent) are crorepatis. A whopping 97 per cent of the candidates from the BJP and the RLD are crorepatis. BJP’s Amit Agarwal, who is contesting from Meerut Cantt, has the highest declared assets worth more than Rs 148 crore. The average assets per candidate contesting in the Phase I of the elections is Rs 3.72 crore, says the report, underling the deep inroads of money power and muscle power in elections.

The ADR report on the candidates for the second phase of elections is equally disturbing. Among the major parties, the SP has 35 out of 52 candidates, INC’s 23 out of 54 candidates, BSP’s 20 out of 55 candidates, BJP’s 18 out of 53 candidates, RLs’s 1 out of 3 candidates, and AAP’s 7 out of 49 candidates, have declared criminal cases against themselves in their affidavits. Six of these candidates have declared cases related to crime against women and one candidate has a case related to murder. Nearly 29 of the 55 constituencies going to polls in the second phase are ‘red alert’ constituencies because of the presence of criminals. Congress nominee Nawab Qasim Ali Khan, who is contesting from Rampur, is the richest candidate in this phase with an asset of from Rs 296 crore.

The Election Commission of India, through a directive, makes it mandatory for political parties to declare the reasons for giving tickets to persons with criminal cases and why other individuals without criminal antecedents could not be selected as candidates.

A common refrain of all the political parties is that their candidates facing criminal charges have been implicated due to ‘political rivalry’. BJP’s Deputy Chief Minister K P Maurya, who is the party’s candidate from Sirathu, is facing four criminal cases. “He is a sitting MLA, Deputy CM of the state, former MP and former state president of the party. He is extremely popular not only in this constituency but across the state… his name has been forwarded by the district unit of the party on the basis of merit, his social work and work in the field of upliftment of the people of the state,” the party has said. “He has been implicated in cases due to political rivalry, hence he has been preferred over the other candidates.”

The BJP has also declared that its candidate Suresh Rana, who is contesting from Thana Bhawan, has three cases against him. “He is the sugarcane development minister in the present government and is extremely popular due to his outstanding work for release of cane dues to farmers,” says the party. Babu Lal, the party candidate from Fatehpur Siri, has as many as seven cases against him. “He has been implicated in cases due to political rivalry,” so says the saffron party. Ditto for Sangeet Som, who has been fielded from Sardhana.

The SP has also sought to justify the selection of candidates for their work for public welfare and upliftment of weaker sections, thereby gaining “immense popularity” in their area. The party also said that the candidates helped people during the COVID pandemic. Davendra Agarwal, the party candidate from Mathura, has four pending criminal cases. “He is a former Cabinet minister falsely implicated in criminal cases to ruin his political career. The cases against him were lodged because of political enmity,” said a report of the party. “Agarwal has been selected because he is better than other applicants.”

Similarly, Atul Pradhan, the SP candidate from Sardhana seat in Meerut, has 38 pending criminal cases against him. “The ticket has been given to him because he has been working among the people for the last several years and his political popularity is good. There is no candidate for this constituency better than Atul Pradhan,” the party said.

Ironically, all the parties have blamed each other for fielding criminal candidates. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath lambasted the opposition parties, accusing them of giving tickets to ‘goons, criminals and rioters’. “The candidates’ lists of SP, BSP and Congress have made it clear that this election will be “vikas and rashtrawad (development and nationalism)” versus “dangai, tamanchawadi aur mafiawadi (rioters, armed criminals and mafias).”

He was particularly caustic about the SP, which he described as a party of ‘terrorists and sympathisers of rioters’. “By giving tickets to criminal elements, the SP has shown its intentions to return the days of gundaraj and dangaraj in the state… SP president Akhilesh Yadav leaves no opportunity to support criminals, rioters and terrorists. His party has given tickets to those who are in jails or are out on bail,” he fulminated.

On the other hand, SP president Akhilesh Yadav claimed that the maximum number of MLAs with a criminal background are from the saffron party. “The chief minister and deputy chief minister have a number of cases against them. The maximum number of MLAs having criminal background have reached the assembly from the BJP,” he claimed.

What is worrisome is that all major parties have been fielding tainted candidates with impunity despite a string of court rulings. In 2002, the Supreme Court directed all candidates to file affidavit detailing their criminal antecedents, educational qualifications and details of their assets. It upheld voters’ right to know about a candidate’s antecedents to make an informed choice.

In 2013 the apex court quashed provision in the Representation of the People Act that allowed MPs and MLAs to continue their membership in a House by merely filing appeal against their conviction and sentence of more than two years in a higher court. This meant MPs and MLAs would be disqualified immediately on conviction and sentence. The same year, the court asked the Election Commission to provide ‘none of the above’ (NOTA) choice to voters to exercise their right to express no confidence against all candidates in fray on an appeal by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).

Later, in 2014, the court made two significant rulings/recommendations. It ordered trial courts to hold day-to-day trail in criminal cases pending against sitting MPs and MLAs and complete it within one year from framing of charges. It also recommended to PM/CMs not to include persons against whom charges have been framed in serious offences, in their Council of Ministers.

Further, in March 2016, the court referred to a five-judge Constitution bench whether framing of charge in heinous crimes (which entails imprisonment of five years or more) against an MP or MLA would disqualify him. This also meant whether a person against whom charges framed in serious offences be debarred from contesting elections.

In August 2021 the apex court made a new move in its bid to call into question the rising tide of criminalisation in Indian politics. The judgment came in response to a plea of contempt against political parties flouting its orders regarding disclosing criminal antecedents of candidates in the 2020 Bihar Assembly elections. “The nation continues to wait and is losing patience,” the court observed.

Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi, however, points out that the Supreme Court stopped short of drastic steps to combat this problem. “It has rejected the suggestion of amicus curiae KV Viswanathan to direct the Election Commission to bar political parties that fail to comply with criminalisation protocols by using its authority derived from Clause 16A of the Election Symbols Order. This step, the SC reasons, would be going too far and infiltrating the domain of the legislature.”

In his article, he also raises a valid point. “Nobody has ever explained this paradox to me. Even a peon cannot be appointed if even a minor criminal case is pending against him. But a person charge-sheeted for murder or rape can become a legislator and even a minister. To add insult to injury, an ‘innocent’ undertrial cannot vote, but a man charge-sheeted for murder can even contest election from jail.”

The fact is political parties in India have always tried to circumvent reforms that would combat criminalisation. This they have been doing by taking recourse to two excuses’ One is the ‘winnability of candidates’ and the other is the maxim of Indian law that any accused is innocent until proven guilty. This has given ample scope to candidates with criminal charges to project themselves as the victims of vendetta politics.

In the highly competitive Indian politics, bristling with trappings of power and pelf, it would be nothing short of a Utopia to expect politicians to behave like Caesar’s wife. Political parties claim that tickets are given to the honest candidates. But the fact is that tickets are mostly given on the basis of winnability which they think comes from muscle and money power.

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