New Delhi: In a precedent-setting judgement against criminalization of politics, the Supreme Court on Monday refused to stay the conviction of Samajwadi Party (SP) candidate and Bollywood film star Sanjay Dutt in connection with the 1993 Mumbai blasts. A stay would have allowed him to contest the general election.
According to legal experts, the apex court’s order is significant and could deny convicted politicians the opportunity to seek temporary stays from courts, enabling them to contest elections. This is because the existing law prohibits convicted criminals with a minimum sentence of two years from contesting elections.
The focus will now shift to candidates who have been convicted and are yet to serve their sentence because they are appealing their punishment in one court or another. Mint couldn’t immediately ascertain the number of such candidates contesting the general election that begins on 16 April.
People who have been convicted and have served their sentence, however, are free to contest the election six years after their release. Still, the court’s ruling on Monday will affect the electoral aspirations of some.
Senior counsel Sushil Kumar said similar cases could also be rejected by courts on the same principle. “People who are involved in criminal cases should have their cases decided first and then rush to do public service with a clean image.”
He added that the disqualification clause applies only to those who have been convicted by courts’ orders. “There is no limitation on undertrials who can contest from jail,” he said.
Senior counsel Majid Memon said the order “sends a signal to the Indian democracy that we need a cleaner Parliament and minimization of criminalization”.
Jagdeep Chhokar, founder member, Association for Democratic Reforms, a non-governmental organization that works towards improving and strengthening democracy and governance in India, said, “Barring any candidate convicted by law from fighting elections is a good step. One cannot predict what courts in future would do in the context of the Supreme Court verdict on Sanjay Dutt. However, any law declared by the Supreme Court is the law of the land and should be binding on other courts. But even then, at this point, one cannot say whether this is really it (the beginning of the end of criminalization in Indian politics).”
In 2006, Dutt was convicted under the Arm’s Act and sentenced to six years imprisonment by a special court. He appealed to the Supreme Court in 2007 and sought a suspension of his sentence. In March, he approached the court for further relief seeking a stay on his conviction so he could contest the polls as an SP candidate.
Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act bars individuals convicted for crimes that attract sentences that are more than two years from contesting elections. Its sub-section 4, however, says that for incumbent members of Parliament the disqualification starts three months from the date of conviction to allow them to file an appeal. After filing an appeal, the sitting representative is not disqualified from contesting elections till the case is decided by the court.
In 2007, the Supreme Court stayed the conviction of former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is now a member of Parliament representing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The bench mentioned that the same principle could not be applied in this case as unlike Dutt, Sidhu was a sitting member of Parliament when he was convicted. It added that Section 389 of the Criminal Procedure Code under which courts can grant stays on criminal conviction, can only be applied “under rare circumstances” .
“We do not think this is a fit case for suspension of conviction,” said Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan who delivered the verdict on behalf of a three-judge bench.
Advocate Nitya Ramakrishnan said while the Dutt judgement is “significant”, “the Sidhu judgement has to be explained” by the courts. “There should be clarity on what sort of cases are rarest of rare cases so courts can suspend convictions. Sometimes innocent people are prosecuted due to a mistake of fact or law and later an appellate court says he is innocent. Whatever it is, the election process must be uniform and predictable. If a conviction cannot be suspended in any situation it needs to be explained.”
Both the Congress and the BJP welcomed the apex court decision. “Our decision not to field a candidate was solely due to our respect to his late father (Sunil Dutt),” Congress spokesperson Ashwini Kumar said.
BJP leader Arun Jaitley said: “We believe that the popular confidence in democracy and electoral system will be strengthened as a result of this judgement.”
Liz Mathew and Ruhi Tewari contributed to this story.