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Worrisome situation

Worrisome situation

In what has unfolded as a worrisome situation and dubbed by some as ridiculing the principle of law and justice, granting a major relief to Sikkim Chief Minister by the Election Commission has allowed him to contest elections in the state a day before the deadline for filing nomination. The Election Commission explained that disqualification of a candidate applied in case of conviction for two or more years before 2003. The Chief Minister of Sikkim Prem Singh Tamang was convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act for misappropriating Rs 9.50 lakh in the purchase of milch cows for distribution in 1996-97 and was jailed for one year in 2017. Tamang was sworn-in on May 28 and needs to get elected within six months of assuming office. The Sikkim Krantikari Morcha (SKM) contested the last assembly elections portraying him as the Chief Ministerial candidate and toppled India's longest-serving Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling's Sikkim Democratic Front (SDF) government. Tamang had to refrain from the polls under Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which disqualifies a candidate who has served jail term from contesting elections for six years after release. In response to Tamang's appeal, the Election Commission reduced the duration of disqualification to one year and one month, the period has elapsed since Tamang completed his sentence on August 10, 2018. However, under Section 11 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, the Election Commission indeed has the power to remove or reduce the disqualification with respect to a conviction but this power has been reserved to be exercised only in cases of rare exceptions. Tamang's argument was that the law prevailing at the time of his offence entailed disqualification only if the sentence was for a term of two years or more; and that the amendment in 2003, under which any conviction under the anti-corruption law would attract the six-year disqualification norm, should not be applied to him. Certainly, this decision of the Election Commission is not in accordance with the anti-graft law at present. The purpose of legislation pertaining to elections is to check and hold back convicted criminals from wielding power and assuming significant positions in public domain which eventually affect general people at large. To put it more plainly, it is highly doubtful that someone convicted for corruption could justifiably be trusted with the responsibility of public resources and welfare. Also, given the increasing awareness in general and bold, deterring decisions made to call out corrupt practices of highly placed bureaucrats, the decision of the Election Commission is one to only weaken the judicial framework developed against corruption in recent times.

The Election Commission's order in favour of Tamang comes just a day after BJP struck an alliance with the SKM for by-polls scheduled for October 21. BJP intends to contest two seats and Tamang will contest from the one allotted to his party. Had the Election Commission not issued this order Tamang would have had to resign from holding the Chief Minister's office. A critical development indeed, this has attracted reactions from a range of political leaders. The SDF spokesperson said that "All democratic institutions and their branches have succumbed to the power of politics and money in this country." Bhaichung Bhutia's Harmo Sikkim Party's opinion is that "The BJP, in a bid to gain political mileage in Sikkim, has played with the law of the land and has even used the ECI". Naturally, the opposition has launched itself in an all-out offence against this decision and the ruling dispensation at the Centre. The Election Commission observed in its September 29 order that "It is a matter of fact that before the amendment of Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, in 2003, the disqualification would have been attracted only if the period of conviction was of two years or more." The Election Commission cited a precedent of July 1977 because it involved a murder conviction against a person based on a caste rivalry between two groups in a village, as recorded in the judgment itself. It must be borne in mind that Tamang did not ascend to the post of Chief Minister from an electoral victory. In April-May 2019 he formed Sikkim Kranti Kari Morcha which repeatedly swore allegiance to the ruling BJP. Swearing allegiance to BJP is thus only expected. Though the party got seats in the election and formed government in alliance with BJP, Tamang could not contest in the election and so could not be elected to the office; but was appointed the Chief Minister anyway and with that came the next expected step to devise ways to get elected within six months without which Tamang would lose his Chief Ministerial seat. From the turn matters have taken, the Election Commission's order to relieve Sikkim Chief Minister is nothing short of an act to subvert democracy in this country.

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