New Delhi: Candidates facing grave charges of murder and other crimes should be disqualified from contesting elections in a bid to decriminalise politics, says the Election Commission.
It also wants the growing menace of paid news to be made an electoral offence to provide a level-playing field in elections.
The Commission has made recommendations to the government against candidates facing cases in which charges are framed by courts which could attract a sentence of five years.
Now it is for the government to bring legislative amendments to the electoral law to achieve these objectives, says Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath.
"This is one of the long-pending demands of the Election Commission in electoral reforms arena. We have said for quite some time that it is not sufficient that people are disqualified on conviction. Earlier, even after conviction, the legislator was allowed to run the rest of the term by filing an appeal. That was remedied by the 5SC order on instant disqualification upon conviction."
"But what we are asking is why allow the person who is likely to be convicted later creating a vacancy, preventing even at the contest stage (criminal candidates) with of course some safeguards," he said.
Sampath, who turned 65, demitted office today as CEC after an eventful tenure of less than six years, occasionally marked by controversies that saw him conduct two Lok Sabha elections and at least one round of Assembly polls in all the states.
Sampath said all cases of grave nature in which punishment is more than five years after framing of charges by a competent court has been recommended to ensure that there are no frivolous disqualification at the contest stage and that also before a reasonable time, of say, six months before the schedule of the elections.
On the growing problem of paid news indulged in by candidates, he said now it was being done only from the expenditure angle of the candidate.
"The only deterrent now is that if he (candidate) indulges in paid new extensively, he would be breaching his expenditure limits.""
"But at the same time, it is not a sufficient deterrent. It is not an electoral offence. Because if it is an electoral offence, if somebody is guilty of paid news, he will also face election petitions on that ground. That will be a further deterrent," the CEC said.
Secondly, he said at present there is no restriction on political parties over the money they are spending. So, if the paid news comes from the political party, candidate will also be the beneficiary.
"We have made a proposal that there should be a limit on spending by political parties in elections," he said adding that as of now the EC has not suggested a cap. "No, no cap suggested. Once it is accepted in principle, cap can be suggested. We have not come to that stage," he said in reply to a question.
Sampath said the Commission is opposed to converting the much-maligned Model Code of Conduct into a law on the ground that it would give an escape route to political parties and candidates because of the long judicial process that exceeds beyond the election period.
The necessity is for action within the two or three weeks of election period when the Model Code is in force, he said.
"Some political parties had proposed converting the Model Code into a law. But we are not in favour of it because the moment it becomes a law, the enforcement domain will go to the courts."
"The Model Code operation is in a very limited period. In a typical election, it is in force for two to three weeks. In three weeks period, the inherent system of judicial process is so that the matter cannot be disposed of in two to three weeks...Court has to follow a reasonable process...Wherease Commission is able to do these things in a matter of 48 or 72 hours," he said.
He also dismissed the criticism that the Code was 'toothless'.
"The charge of being toothless is an erroneous impression and that the Model Code action is 'be all and end all'. That is not the case, if somebody commits a penal action, it is covered under IPC. There is additional action under Model Code which may be reprimand, censure etc. FIR will also be filed in such cases," Sampath said.
Summing up the important steps the Commission took during his tenure, Sampath said that he could draw satisfaction from the fact that the Commission has turned voter centric now.
Various measures were taken to ensure the inclusiveness of the voters list like special summary revision after general revision of electoral rolls.
Innovative steps like special enrolment even after the announcement of general elections is one such step, he said citing the fact that on March 9 last year, four days after the announcement of the Lok Sabha poll schedule, 74 lakh people registered on a single day. The figure would surpass even the entire electorate of some countries.
The introduction of photo voter identity slips, delivered at the doorsteps of the electorate, during the last Lok Sabha elections was a great boon, especially for the poor who may not have the facility to keep in safe custody their photo identity cards.
To a question if he has any regrets, Sampath said the Commission could have done more regarding transparency in political funding.
"Today there is not much of a transparency with regards to funds raised by political parties. Law relating to political parties is very weak and inadequate. In fact, India is one of the very few countries where there is no comprehensive legislation governing political parties."
"In fact, we, like EC, which is registrar for political parties, we have power only to register a political party but we don't have power even to deregister a political party," he said.
With regards to fund raising and reporting it to the Commission, Sampath said at present only contributions of Rs 20,000 or more are required to be reported.
"We have recently issued transparency guidelines which will remedy the situation to some extent. They will also bring much greater transparency with regard to raising of funds sand maintenance of funds by political parties."
He said most importantly for every amount received the political party should keep the name of the contributor of the funds so that anybody can go and verify whether the contributions are genuine.
"This is mainly for cash. We have told parties that they should not keep huge amount of cash with them. Whatever cash is received should be deposited in bank account of political parties. This will go a long way in curbing the role of cash in elections," Sampath said.