| Sidhu savours the moment. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Jan. 23: Scandal-scarred politicians who cling to power may have finally found a compelling reason to step down without kicking and screaming.
The Supreme Court today granted the first-ever stay on a high court conviction, citing the “high moral standards” set by Navjot Singh Sidhu when he resigned as member of Parliament the day he was sentenced in a case of culpable homicide in December.
The relief to Sidhu removed the legal hurdle to the former cricketer’s renomination from the Amritsar Lok Sabha seat.
Had the conviction not been stayed, the three-year jail term imposed by Punjab and Haryana High Court would have kept Sidhu out of the fray.
Moments after the Supreme Court ruling came today — two days before the deadline to file nominations — BJP president Rajnath Singh announced Sidhu’s candidature from Amritsar.
The significance of the stay goes far beyond the candidature of a cricketer-turned-politician known for his machine-gun mouth. This is the first case in 57 years where a conviction has been stayed till the apex court rules on an appeal against a lower court verdict.
Usually, when an appeal is admitted, the Supreme Court stays the execution of the sentence — the punishment — not the conviction itself.
That means the accused need not go to prison till the apex court rules on the appeal. Legally, however, the accused remains a convict and the law that debars candidates apply to them.
Those who have to serve over two years cannot fight elections for six years after release from jail. However, if conviction comes after the election, the House membership can be retained till the expiry of the term or the final decision on the appeal that has to be filed in three months.
Sidhu was already a Lok Sabha member when he was convicted in a road-rage case in which a 65-year-old man died after a brawl in Patiala.
But he had resigned on the same day, sparing the BJP blushes as the conviction came in the middle of an uproar over the erstwhile UPA minister Shibu Soren’s refusal to give up his House seat despite being sentenced to life in a murder case.
Sidhu’s alacrity paid off today. While suspending the conviction, the Supreme Court said Sidhu set “high standards” in public life by vacating the seat.
A bench headed by Justice G.P. Mathur said Sidhu could have continued as MP till the end of his term by filing an appeal, but had set high standards in public life by resigning immediately.
“The grant of stay on conviction… can be resorted to in rare cases,” the bench added.
Some lawyers felt that the order would trigger appeals for a stay from other convicted politicians till their appeal is decided.
Rakesh Diwedi, the lawyer for the family of Gurnam Singh who died in the brawl in 1988, said two Uttar Pradesh politicians got in touch with him today to see how a similar stay could be secured.
The apex court also relied on a few weak links in the case — the medical report had some grey areas and the FIR does not specify who beat up Gurnam Singh — to rule in favour of Sidhu. Sidhu and his friend Rupinder Singh Sandhu were involved in the brawl.