NEW DELHI India's cabinet moved to shield politicians found guilty of crimes by passing an executive order on Tuesday that could allow convicted lawmakers to continue to hold office and stand in elections, ahead of national polls due by next May.
Two ministers present at the cabinet meeting told Reuters an executive order on the matter was passed. They declined to give further details.
About 30 percent of Indian lawmakers across federal and state assemblies have criminal charges against them, and following a Supreme Court order in July many faced being expelled from their seats, including government allies seen as important for electoral success.
The ruling Congress party had already moved a parliamentary bill to partially reverse the decision of the court that any lawmaker found guilty of a crime could no longer hold or run for elected office.
The ordinance is believed to be similar in content to the bill, which would allow lawmakers facing charges to continue to take part in parliamentary proceedings such as debates, but not to vote or receive a government salary.
The bill has not yet passed through India's notoriously slow-moving parliament. Some commentators believe the government was compelled to act by the possible conviction for corruption of an electoral ally in a court case due to conclude next week.
"When it comes to saving their convicted brethren, they act with lightning speed," said Amulya Ganguli, a political analyst.
Following India's last general election in 2009, about 30 percent of the lawmakers sworn into both the federal and state assemblies had criminal charges against them, according to an analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms, an advocacy group.
In the Lok Sabha, the national lower house, 162 of the 543 MPs declared there were pending criminal cases against them in affidavits that they had to file prior to contesting elections. In the state assemblies, 1,258 of the 4,032 lawmakers declared criminal charges.
It is not clear how many have since been convicted.
Before July's Supreme Court order, India's lawmakers had been able to capitalize on a loophole whereby those who filed appeals within three months of a guilty verdict could stay in office.
The ordinance must be signed by India's president Pranab Mukherjee in order to become law. The law must be ratified by parliament within six weeks of the start of the next parliament session, or it will lapse. It is expected to pass easily.
"There is widespread support for this among the political class," said Neerja Chowdhury, a political commentator and a former political editor of The Indian Express newspaper.
The case due to conclude next week concerns Lalu Prasad, a former chief minister of the eastern state of Bihar and a frequent ally of the Congress party. Prasad is one of the accused in a scam where money was allegedly taken from state coffers to provide fodder for herds of livestock that later turned out not to exist.
"Lalu Prasad's possible conviction could have prompted the cabinet to pass this ordinance," Chowdhury said. "There are some who feel that...if they get Lalu Prasad on board they can win Bihar."
Home to 104 million people, Bihar is one of India's most electorally important states.
Another influential figure, Rasheed Masood, a Congress party member of India's upper house and a former health minister, was found guilty last week in a corruption case that involved nominations for seats at medical schools. He was set to be the first lawmaker to be affected by the Supreme Court order, according to local newspaper reports.
Several politicians have been charged with serious crimes such as rape and murder. Elected office can be lucrative in a country where black markets thrive sometimes under political protection. Political parties can sometimes be open to criminal elements who bring with them campaign financing.
(Additional reporting by Nigam Pristy in NEW DELHI; Writing by Shyamantha Asokan; Editing by Frank-Jack Daniel)