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Big 2 cautious, others not so

New Delhi, July 11: Today’s Supreme Court ruling barring jailed politicians, even those not convicted, from contesting elections drew sharp criticism from regional parties but the national parties, especially the Congress and the BJP, chose to be cautious.

“There’s no denying the political system needs reforms. We welcome the verdict of the Supreme Court. The party needs to look into the finer points of the judgment and then take a stand,” Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha said.

The BJP also preferred to wait. “The BJP welcomes any court ruling aimed at cleansing the electoral system. Regarding the latest (today’s) judgment, we need to go through it and then take a stand,” spokesperson Nirmala Seetharaman said.

The circumspection contrasted with the stands of regional party leaders who voiced fears the ruling could be misused by opponents.

Trinamul Congress MP Saugata Roy was among those who expressed reservations, but stressed it was his personal opinion and that he had not discussed the issue in his party. “I don’t agree with the Supreme Court ruling. In India not everyone who is in jail is a criminal. In the past, a number of respected political leaders, including George Fernandes, have won elections from behind bars. So it’s very unfair to bar everyone (in jail) from contesting,” Roy said.

Janata Dal (United) MP Shivanand Tiwari, whose party rules Bihar, echoed the concern. “How can someone be barred from contesting an election if he is in jail for participating in a political agitation? This appears to be an extreme stand. It will be widely misused by rival parties.”

The fears were shared by Uttar Pradesh rivals, the ruling Samajwadi Party and the BSP. “Framing rivals in false cases is common practice. If everyone who is jailed in any case is not allowed to contest, it will be unfair,” BSP MP Dhananjay Singh said.

The Left parties too preferred to wait. The CPM did not comment. The CPI “welcomed” the judgment but stressed the need to differentiate between cases. It pointed out, for instance, that leaders are often jailed for participating in agitations.

“This well-intentioned judgment will help cleanse Parliament and Assemblies. However, it has to be noted that there are cases where some people are under criminal proceedings for participating in agitations on people’s issues,” a statement from the CPI said.

For the Congress and the BJP, their cautious approach was seen as an attempt not to send out wrong signals to voters in the run-up to the Assembly elections in four states later this year, followed by the Lok Sabha polls next year.

“We will wait and watch and see how other parties react and then think about calling an all-party meeting. There is no need for a knee-jerk reaction now. It could be counterproductive,” said a senior Congress leader.

Privately, however, some Congress leaders shared the regional parties’ view that today’s ruling was “very unfair”. “We welcome the verdict as we want to decriminalise the system and cleanse the society. But we have to consider the issues being raised by other parties,” senior leader Renuka Chowdhury was quoted as saying by PTI.

The BJP also preferred to hold its horses, fearing any outright opposition may lead to the party being seen as backing corrupt politicians. “We have taken a no-tolerance stand against corruption. We need to be careful before taking a position,” said a leader.