India says tainted MPs can stay on, in defiance of top court: Reports

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's Cabinet passed an order on Tuesday to undo a Supreme Court ruling that stipulated convicted lawmakers cannot hold elected office in parliament or in state legislatures, the Press Trust of India reported.

The Cabinet issued an ordinance to prevent disqualification of lawmakers convicted in criminal cases carrying jail terms of at least two years, the national news agency reported, quoting unnamed sources.

In a July ruling, the Supreme Court had struck down a provision in the electoral law that protects a convicted lawmaker from being barred from parliament if they have appealed their conviction.

The executive decree, passed at a Cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, can become law only if approved by Parliament within six months.

The Hindustan Times said the executive decree put limited restrictions on tainted federal MPs and state legislators.

The lawmakers "will not vote or draw salaries till the case is decided", the mass-circulation daily said in its online edition after the Cabinet meeting.

Dr Singh's scandal-tainted government, which must face the electorate in general elections due by next May, has been considerably weakened by a string of corruption scandals involving politicians from his ruling coalition.

His Congress party has insisted that the decree is not a "backdoor" move to muscle through a law to prevent disqualification of tainted lawmakers.

"It is not a backdoor method... It has to have the nod of parliament and it will go before parliament in the very next session," Congress party spokesman P. C. Chacko told reporters.

Two years ago, India was rocked by anti-corruption protests led by veteran social activist Anna Hazare, 75, that triggered huge support from millions of middle-class Indians dismayed by what they viewed as venality of India's leaders.

The Business Standard business daily said the ordinance had the backing of all political parties except the communists.

Indian political parties have a tendency to disregard the criminal antecedents of politicians in the rough and tumble of forming government and holding on to power.

The ordinance could affect the political fate of regional party strongman Lalu Prasad Yadav who is accused in a financial corruption scandal dating back to the 1990s.

A verdict is expected in Mr Yadav's trial at the end of the month, but even if he is convicted, he can remain a sitting member of Parliament and contest elections.

The ruling Congress is hoping that it can count on Mr Yadav's support in general elections due by next May that is expected to result in a coalition government.

Without the ordinance, Congress MP Rashid Masood, who was convicted last week in a separate financial scandal, might also have been forced to quit Parliament.

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