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Capture People's minds
From: "LokSatta" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Tirumala Srinivas" <email@example.com>
Subject: Capture People's minds - 05 Aug 2002
Date: Mon, 5 Aug 2002 21:09:12 +0530
We had a good meeting with activists and political parties in Chennai on 4th August (Sunday). 8 political parties participated. The major ones – DMK, ADMK, MDMK, and PMK did not participate. CPM, Congress / TMC, BJP, JP etc were there.
There was a good follow up meeting with activists and experienced lawyers and administrators. Several useful ideas emerged. But first, some perspectives for generating wide public debate, and sensitizing the media.
1. We are all, in a way, grateful to the political parties for making the debate sharp and unambiguous. Often in the past parties and governments damned reform efforts by agreeing and never acting upon it. Now, the issue is in black and white. And by uniting in their opposition to full disclosures, they have also given us an invaluable opportunity to unite across regions, languages, castes, prejudices and political predilections. Nothing we do collectively can match what the parties have accomplished over the past three months.
2. Before understanding what this struggle is about, we need to emphatically state what it is not about.
a) It not about judiciary vs legislature. Every right thinking citizen and democrat stands by Parliament in upholding its sanctity and asserting its legislative supremacy. The legislature comprises of our chosen representatives and any dishonour to that august body is a dishonour to us, as a people.
But this is the wrong case and time to assert legislative supremacy. This is a case where the Supreme Court merely interpreted the citizen’s right to know about candidates as a fundamental right enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution and as a natural right flowing from the very concept of democracy. It is Supreme Court's bounden duty to interpret the fundamental rights of citizens and safeguard them. Common sense and basic democratic postulates tell us that the Court is right on this issue, and no amount of quibbling can persuade fair-minded citizens that people in a democracy should vote blindly.
b) Disclosure is not about disqualification. The government brought in the issue of disqualification of those charged by a magistrate with two 'heinous' offences, in two separate cases. This is in consonance with the larger principle enunciated by the Law Commission and Election Commission, that serious criminal charges pending against a person should be a ground for disqualification until the verdict is delivered. But, irrespective of the merits of this disqualification, the Supreme Court judgment (May 2), EC's order (June 28), and National Campaign struggle are not about disqualification, but about disclosures.
Nor do we seek discretionary powers to Returning Officers to reject nominations on technical grounds. The Election Commission's order (Para 14(4)) is clearly meant to enforce truthful disclosures, and not to act as a judge and jury before the election. There are enough safeguards provided in the order. The Commission's past record shows that nominations are not rejected on frivolous grounds, and acceptance is the norm. However, when parties say that they cannot trust officials posted by their own governments, they must be saying that for some good reason. In a way it is an extraordinary admission of politicization of bureaucracy habitually resorted to by them, and complete subversion of rule of law. Happily, in electoral matters this subversion has been substantially contained, thanks to the independence and impartiality of the Election Commission.
However, we respect the concerns of the Parties. Accordingly, we requested the Election Commission to suitably amend the offending paragraph 14(4). We have also circulated a note to political parties (enclosed) specifically suggesting that the Returning Officers' power to verify the details furnished can be removed by amending Rule 4 of Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. Only non-disclosure can be made a ground for rejection, and false disclosure can only be ground for subsequent prosecution and/or election petition or disqualification. In fact the present draft Bill provides for subsequent disqualification in case of suppression of information relating to pending charges concerning heinous offences. (section 2 of the Bill, seeking to incorporate new section 8-B in RP Act, 1951). A similar provision in respect of all disclosures in cases of substantial suppression of information or misrepresentation would meet the requirements. Therefore the alleged discretion in the hands of Returning officers cannot be used as an alibi for undermining disclosure provisions.
Let it be understood clearly and unambiguously that the purpose of the Bill is not to remove discretion of ROs; but to undermine disclosure norms per se. The heart of the draft Bill is in its section 4 (proposed section 33 A in RP Act, 1951). It is worthwhile quoting the provision in full, because people and media need to understand the issue in perspective.
“ 33 A. Notwithstanding anything contained in any judgment, decree or order of any court or any direction, order or any other instruction issued by the Election Commission, no candidate shall be liable to disclose or furnish any such information, in respect of his election, which is not required to be disclosed or furnished under this Act or the rules made there under.”
c) Disclosure provisions are not meant to harass politicians charged with purely political offences while participating in protests – “trespass into public property”, “violation of prohibitory orders” etc. All that the people need to know is the nature of offences pending. To be doubly sure that candidates are not put to inconvenience, there can be a simple disclosure of all charges pending (framed by a magistrate) in respect of all offences listed under section 8 of the RP Act, 1951. Such an amendment by rules is welcome. In fact, the proposed draft Bill, in effect, seeks to enforce disclosure of pending charges in respect of offences which entail imprisonment for 2 years or more (Section 5 of the draft Bill: proposed Section 33B of RP Act, 1951). If parties feel there is difficulty in disclosing all minor and technical charges of a political nature, they can certainly seek disclosure of only such offences which are covered by sub Sections (1), (2) and (3) of Section 8 of the RP Act, 1951.
d) This whole debate on disclosures and electoral reforms is most emphatically not about a clash between people and politicians. Time and again the National Campaign made it clear that we respect political process, and understand the severe constraints under which politicians function. It would be untrue and immature to treat politicians as people's enemies. True politics is a noble endeavor, and should remain so.
It is equally vital that politicians should respect the wishes of the people whom they seek to represent. Nobody can deny that in a democracy the public opinion is everything. We all say 'Janata Jaanardan', ‘Vox Populi, Vox dei', 'People are the sovereigns'. The faceless people all over the country are now saying, 'we have a right to know about our candidates'. Several surveys , including that by CMS, have shown that over 75% people want disclosures. Most of the rest have no opinion since they have not paid attention to it. Not even 1% people say that candidates need not, or should not disclose their antecedents and financial details. (Survey results of Lok Satta – Kakinada etc.) If parties' claim of respecting public opinion have any value, let them simply disclose, and make legal provisions for that. Legal nitpicking and quibbling is merely camouflaging the real issue.
3. Then what is disclosure about? It is about people's fundamental right to know about their candidates, as an extension of Art 19 (freedom of speech and _expression) and Art 21 (Protection of personal liberty) of the Constitution. It is not a right granted by law or decree, and Parliament or any other body has no power to take it away. This right to be informed about the candidates is a natural right flowing from the very concept of democracy.
Disclosure is an essential prerequisite for aware and active citizenship. All parties, civil society activists and media tell people that they should be active and informed citizens. Disclosure is but one tool for such civic engagement.
The arrangement that people already know who is what, and yet are voting criminals and corrupt persons into office is both irresponsible and unacceptable. Politicians are not to judge people' verdicts. People are the judges of politicians. Disclosure and public exposure of the antecedents of candidates will force attention on the quality of candidates. Even if it has a 5% bearing on voting preferences, it is a gain to democracy. It is not anybody's case that disclosure is a panacea to all our ills. It is just a necessary starting point.
Experience of Lok Satta shows that disclosure and public debate strengthens the decent elements in parties and politics. Once there is public exposure of the candidates' background, parties will look for clean candidates without any taint of criminality and corruption. Established politicians with criminal record may continue to be nominated, but fear of public exposure will surely force parties to refrain from accepting known corrupt and criminal elements, or those with undisclosed and ill-gotten wealth as fresh candidates. It cannot be our case that the parties are so far gone, and our political process is so debased that no amount of disclosure and public focus will change their behaviour and decisions. Democracy is based on the premise that public opinion is everything. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
4. Why are parties afraid of disclosures? The heart of the problem is not disclosure of criminal records. Nor is disclosure of educational qualification the key issue, or relevant issue. Disclosure of assets and liabilities is the heart of the problem. Parties and politicians are forced to spend vast sums for elections. Most of this expenditure is undisclosed, unaccounted and illegitimate. Parties and candidates are sucked into a vicious cycle and are afraid of the consequences of public exposure.
It is widely reported that in Saidapet Assembly byelection in Tamil Nadu several crores of rupees were spent recently. In Kankapura byelection, it is widely believed that a sum well in excess of Rs 10 crores was spent. In Andhra Pradesh, byelections in Vuyyur, Medak and Siddipet cost over 2 – 3 crores each. Excess expenditure to buy votes, distribute liquor, hire hoodlums and bribe officials is increasingly the norm in elections in many pockets of India. Parties feel helpless because they see no way out. Therefore they are compelled to nominate candidates with unlimited amounts of unaccounted, and often ill-gotten, money as the chief, if not the sole, criterion of selection. Disclosure of assets and liabilities will expose this shameful practice – while candidates disclose modest means, their life styles, visible assets, and benami holdings give away the truth to people. That is the cause of this consternation.
Financial disclosure does not seek to embarrass the honest elements who have legitimate sources of income and accountable wealth. In fact, disclosures will reveal many anomalies. The honest tax payers and those with legitimate sources of income will he revealing their assets, though their life styles are frugal. Those with endless supplies of cash and lavish styles will reveal very few assets, and show practically 'nil' incomes. The revelation is not the issue; the key is the gap between what is disclosed, and what is perceived as their sources of income and lifestyles. Eventually this public disclosure will reflect very well on those who disclose their assets as they have nothing to conceal; and those who suppress the information, but cannot conceal their real assets from public gaze.
Already there are many comments in the media about disclosure of sizeable (by Indian standards) assets of known honest politicians, and minimal assets and incomes declared by politicians with lavish lifestyles and benami 'assets'. It is such comparison which will force transparency, and slowly make a dent in the culture of undisclosed transactions and black money.
There is nothing new in the above paragraphs. I just thought I should put together some of the arguments together, taking into account the comments made and apprehensions expressed in several quarters over the past few weeks.
Now, the real question is, what do we do? On the basis of the innumerable mails received over the past few days, several conversations with activists all over the country, and the detailed strategy session we had in Chennai, here are some of the specific action points:
1. The legal briefs for submission to the President should be ready by 7th August. Could Dr Bhaskara Rao and Sri Promod Chawla work with Ms Kamini Jaiswal and Sri Sanjay Parikh and get them ready. We need two briefs:
a) The case for the President to return the Bill with a message to Parliament under Art 111.
b) The case for consulting the Supreme Court under Art. 143.
Justice Rajendar Sachar may please be consulted, his guidance may be sought.
2. A meeting will be sought with the President. We need the names of about 10 distinguished citizens who will present a memorandum. The date of meeting may be around 12th or 13th August. By that time the legal briefs should be ready in all respects.
Dr Bhaskara Rao and Gen. Vinod Saighal may kindly think of suitable names of persons and communicate to me at the earliest. We need to send the names to the President's office in advance. Once the list is finalised, we need to consult them and obtain their consent. Justice Rajendra Sachar, Sri Kuldip Nayar, Sri LC Jain, Admiral Tahiliani, Sti BG Deshmukh, Gen. Saighal, and Dr Bhaskara Rao are some of the obvious names. Dr PM Bhargava (former Director, CCMB), who also knows the President, has volunteered. We need a few more names – Ms Kamini Jaiswal, Ms Maja Daruwala, Sri Jagadananda (Orissa), Sri BS Raghavan, Sri AK Venkatasubramanian, Sri Narasimhan (Tamil Nadu), and a few other distinguished citizens. The number can exceed ten. There is no harm. Kindly think over.
3. We should get ready to file a case before Supreme Court to declare Section 4 (in the present draft Bill) null and void as it is ultra vires the Constitution, the moment it becomes law. Obviously Ms Kamini Jaiswal, Justice Sachar and Sri Sanjay Parikh are best-suited. They may decide on any other support we may need. Sri P Chidambaram offered to argue the case on our behalf, if we need his services. There could be others. The legal team should discuss and decide these details. Depending on their guidance, we can approach other distinguished jurists for their help.
4. Meanwhile, the first battle is in Parliament. Sri Kuldip Nayar has kindly offered to introduce any amendments we may like to propose. Again Ms Kamini Jaiswal and Sri Sanjay Parikh should immediately give us draft amendments. It is unlikely that parliament will be swayed by such amendment at this stage. But we need to utilize the opportunity to enlarge the debate. Also, we need to be seen to have done everything possible to persuade our law makers, and have exhausted all realistic options before embarking upon a movement. Friends in Delhi may also identify other MPs from both Houses who may be willing to introduce amendments.
5. A suggestion came that if the two elder statesmen, former presidents Sri R Venkata Raman and Sri KR Narayan speak publicly in favour of candidate disclosures in all respects, that would add great value to the citizens' effort. Friends who have contacts may help us in this regard. We could request major networks and media groups to approach the former Presidents and give wide publicity to their views.
The above are the specific action points on the legal and Constitutional fronts.
If the Bill does become law, finally the real battle has to be to capture people's minds, and mobilize them into action. The past three months' media coverage has awakened about 25 – 30% of the population. The fact that all parties have joined hands to undermine disclosures has made a deep impact on people's minds. Now we need to reach more people, and make them express their views in a tangible manner. The following are the specific suggestions which came up for mass action:
Spread the idea of wearing a badge / displaying a bumper sticker in favour of disclosures – same colour, size and similar, simple message in local languages all over the country. Dr Krishnaswamy of Chennai promised to send the modules within 2 days. Ms Tara Sinha, Dr Bhaskara Rao, Ms Maja Daruwala and others may help as in finalizing the designs and popularizing them.
Lok Satta’s ballots have had a wide impact in district towns. A small ballot box ( or any other sealed box with suitable opening, and slips of paper – green for yes, and red for no) can be installed with local publicity, and people asked to register their views through a ballot - Do they want full disclosure of candidates’ details, or not. The results, with seals opened and ballots counted in the presence of media, should be widely publicized.
Public meetings with street theatr – using Sri LC Jain’s model of blind-folded voters being asked to vote for candidates, of whom they have no knowledge, and consequences – in as many small towns as possible.
A massive email and SMS message campaign – each recipient sending to 10 more persons in favour of disclosures. Once the traffic in messages reaches a critical mass, a lot of debate will ensue and sensitize many more people. The messages must be brief, simple and succinct. They should link disclosures with clean politics, fight against corruption and electoral reforms. Ms Tara Sinha, Dr Bhaskara Rao and Dr Krishna Swamy may kindly help us with the messages, their designing and replication.
Village level meeting in select panchayats – particularly medium to large villages – with street theatre. Villagers will make a declaration and take a pledge,
“No disclosure No vote’.
This is not a call for boycott
of polls. The message is, irrespective of law, we will vote only for those
candidates who come forward with full disclosures – including financial details.
Such pledges can be taken in all public meetings wherever they are held – rural
Once the Bill does because law, protest demonstrations all over, with one simple activity – reject the Act. The grounds for such rejection of the Bill are – it is violative of our fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution; it is detrimental to the spirit of democracy and citizens sovereignty. This is a perfectly constitutional act of dissent. At all times we should invoke the constitution in our opposition to this law. Such a visible protest is a tangible action which will enthuse and involve millions of citizens.
Students in each college will be approached and addressed to help them understand the nuances of the disclosure issue. Their active support and participation is critical for the success of the movement.
All civil society organizations will seek candidate details in any election due now – local, state or national, and demand full disclosure. Such disclosures will be publicized, and people appealed to vote only for those who disclose all details.
Efforts should continue to persuade other SECs to enforce disclosure norms in full in all local government elections.
We will prepare badges, posters, banners, slogans etc – as many as possible and popularize them. Some will be made carefully and distributed. Local organizations can replicate the models in local languages.
Two or three public broadcasting messages will be prepared in English and Hindi for telecasting. Lok Satta will take the responsibility of getting them ready and distributing to national campaign activists all over the country. Local activists may use their good offices to get free air time in public interest. These will be of about 30 seconds duration each. They may be dubbed into local languages where required.
After preparing the ground fully, and mobilizing public opinion, we will launch a mass protest marked by a one-week's fast by several hundred activists in Delhi and State capitals all over the country. Thousands of others can join in short fasts. The idea is serious enough action to stir the conscience of the nation, while not resorting to unnecessary bravado like indefinite fast.
The focus will be on electoral reform as the key
to corruption, and disclosure as the first necessary step. We need to get a lot
of things ready before we embark on such traditional Indian form of peaceful
These are some of the key approaches which represent the synthesis of several views and discussions.I appeal to all activists to take necessary follow up action on these and other lines and keep us informed.
With warm regards
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An Open Letter to Political Parties
It is good to note that an all-party meeting was held on July 8 to discuss electoral reforms. In a democracy, the primacy of political process and supremacy of parliament must be universally respected and strengthened. The strident criticism of political activity and revulsion of politics exhibited unthinkingly by some is a source of great concern to true lovers of liberty and defenders of democracy.
We believe what India needs is more politics, not less; and more democracy, not less. Political parties are the most vital instruments for involving people in political action, and therefore our effort should be to strengthen them and make them more effective. The many concerned citizens who are distancing themselves from politics need to be engaged in political process. Above all, we should work towards enhancing legitimacy of the democratic process by simple, practical, effective reforms.
All the major political parties have been expressing deep concern about electoral reforms. Many committees and experts have studied the subject. The Election Commission is doing its best to uphold the sanctity of our electoral process. But a lot more remains to be done. Voter registration is still flawed, and studies indicate many eligible voters’ names are missing, and ineligible names find place in electoral rolls. This can be corrected by making voter registration simpler, more people-friendly and accessible by utilizing the local post offices as a nodal agency. Similarly polling irregularities, which are still common, can be curbed by simple steps. Political parties ought to be strengthened by amendments to X schedule of the Constitution, and effective checks against defections, even as the members legitimate right to dissent is respected. Internal democratic norms in parties should be revitalized and more and more people must be attracted to play a meaningful role in political process. Representational legitimacy needs to be enhanced by providing for general elections based on party platform and party lists. Parties and candidates are starved of legitimate funds for political activity. We need to strengthen their hands by providing tax incentives to political contributions, strengthening disclosure norms promoting transparency, and providing for public funding in a verifiable and fair manner. All these and other reforms are crying for attention.
These are obviously the deep concerns of politicians whose hard work and commitment are sustaining our democratic process and defending our liberty. Fortunately, we also have several non-partisan and public spirited organizations all over the country who are committed to this cause of strengthening democracy. Association for Democratic Reforms (Ahmedabad), AGNI (Mumbai), Common Cause, Lok Seva Sangh, Partners in Change (Mumbai), Tranparency International, CYSD (Bhubaneswar), Public Affairs Center (Bangalore), Catalyst Trust (Chennai), Parivartan, Centre for Media Studies, Concerned Citizens for Calcutta, PUCL, C.H.R.I, Citizens’ Alliance for Promotion of Responsive Governance, Women’s Political Watch, Lok Satta (Hyderabad) and many other organizations are forming a broad coalition to further this cause. Several jurists, experts, administrators and activists are also involved in this process.
Ultimately, the success of the democratic process depends on our respecting the right of the voter to full information about the background of individual candidates. We would like to emphasize that this right of citizens to know is declared as fundamental right as enshrined in article 19 of the constitution
The Supreme Court also held that the right to get information in democracy is a natural right flowing from the concept of democracy. “The little man in this country would have the basic elementary right to know the full particulars of (the) candidate who is to represent him in Parliament where laws to bind his liberty and property may be enacted”. Such disclosure will only strengthen the political process and help to weed out corrupt and criminal elements from making a way into legislatures which are the custodians of our Constitution.
The all-party meeting raised a few pertinent questions about the process of obtaining information and disclosing it. We maintain that the right of citizens to know about the candidates’ antecedents and other relevant details is non-negotiable. However, we recognize the legitimate concerns of legislators regarding dangers of frivolous rejection of nominations. In the past fifty years’ record of elections for state and national legislatures, not even 10 cases of frivolous rejection of nominations can be cited. However, there can be further safeguards to prevent the Returning Officers from acting as “unguided missiles” in the hands of partisan politicians. The Election Commission can be asked to frame precise and verifiable guidelines. In the unlikely event of frivolous rejection of a nomination, there can be a quick remedy of Election Commission’s intervention under Article 324, based on a report by the District Election officer.
A brief note which should dispel the reservations and apprehensions about disclosure norms is enclosed.
The people of India look up to you, the political parties and public representatives for leadership and direction to defend liberty, strengthen democracy and respect people’s sovereignty. We most earnestly urge you to take this opportunity to fortify electoral reforms which shield our legislatures from persons of dubious background, strengthen our democracy and enhance popular respect for the political process.
“Save your country from criminal politicians”
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