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India court pressures Modi on 'criminal' cabinet ministers

India's top court said on Monday (Aug 25) lawmakers with criminal backgrounds should not serve in government, with 13 ministers facing charges for attempted murder, rioting and other offences. 

NEW DELHI: India's top court said on Monday (Aug 25) lawmakers with criminal backgrounds should not serve in government, with 13 ministers facing charges for attempted murder, rioting and other offences. The ruling is likely to put pressure on right-wing Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power this year pledging clean governance.

The Supreme Court ruled that Modi should be left to choose his own cabinet, but said it hoped the premier would ultimately take into account public expectations and India's democratic values.

"We leave it to the wisdom of the prime minister to see whether people with criminal backgrounds are appointed as ministers," Justice Dipak Misra told the court. "Ultimately it is expected that people with criminal backgrounds should not be part of the council of ministers," said Misra, who headed a bench of five judges. "Ultimately it is expected that the prime minister should consider and not choose a person with a criminal background and that is the constitution's expectation."

The court was handing down its judgement on a petition seeking to bar MPs with "criminal backgrounds", including those charged but not yet convicted of crimes, from being appointed ministers in state and federal governments. The court said it could not disqualify such MPs from cabinet. India bans those convicted of serious crimes from holding office, not those facing charges.

Modi won a landslide election in May partly on a promise to clean up government after the previous Congress-led administration was plagued by corruption and other scandals. Thirteen of Modi's 45 ministers have been charged with criminal offences, eight of those involving serious charges, according to the Delhi-based Association of Democratic Reforms, a clean government advocacy group.

Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation Minister Uma Bharti has 13 cases pending, including two charges related to attempted murder and six charges related to rioting, the association said. MPs say charges against them are false or trumped up or levelled by political opponents seeking to harm their reputations.

MPs convicted of crimes have traditionally continued to hold office simply by filing an appeal in India's clogged and notoriously slow courts. But in a landmark judgement last July, the Supreme Court ruled that MPs sentenced to more than three years in jail should be disqualified, regardless of any appeal. The previous government attempted to reverse the ruling which impacted on a long list of MPs, but stood down after facing internal dissent and a major public backlash.