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The Mother India

  A Home page to achieve Electoral reforms, true democracy & citizens sovereignty in India


It's About Disclosure, Not Disqualification

--------Ajit Ranade
chief economist


Election Commission Implements Supreme Court's Order

Last week, just a few days before the deadline, the Election Commission (EC) issued an order implementing the judgement passed by the Supreme Court (SC) on May 2. Through this order, the EC has modified the format of the nomination papers filled out by candidates seeking to contest election. Candidates must now disclose details of criminal background (if any), their assets, their liabilities to public financial institutions, and their educational qualification. Failure to do so, or furnishing false evidence can attract rejection of nomination papers. But we must note that this order of the EC is all about disclosure, not disqualification. The SC judgment (and the related earlier judgement of the Delhi High Court) maintained that electors have a right to know, so that they can make an informed choice among various candidates. And keeping electors in the dark, especially about criminal antecedents, cannot be consistent with a free and fair election. The relevant election law, or rather the Representation of People Act, already has provisions which disqualify persons who have been convicted of serious crimes from contesting elections. But since the legal process and convictions take a long time, and cases can remain pending in a hierarchy of courts, thus bypassing the technicality of "being convicted", very few candidates are actually disqualified. In the meantime the influence of criminals on the political process is increasing leaps and bounds. This has been amply documented over several years, if not decades. The Law Commission, in a detailed report has recommended that the RP Act be strengthened considerably, to curtail this criminalisation of politics. The report has recommended to Parliament that this loophole of pending cases be removed. Such a modification of the RP Act would need legislative action in Parliament, something that has not happened so far, despite sufficient multiparty consensus.

Hence until the law gets modified, the EC 's order will at least ensure some degree of transparency. It will also mean that public and widespread dissemination of self-declared criminal background of any candidate cannot attract libelous litigation. Concerned citizens groups, apart from rival parties will put some sunshine on shady pasts, self declared via affidavits. This can only help, not hinder the democratic process. It is instructive to note that government rules already require any applicant to any government job, to be subjected to a much more thorough scrutiny. Since elected officials are also deemed to be public servants, it is but natural that their candidacy also be subject to some scrutiny. The EC's order has got politicians agitated, since they feel that this executive order, amounts to the EC usurping legislative turf. But as the Supreme Court said in its judgment, that while it recognizes, accepts and respects the legislators' prerogative to make laws, it feels that "if the field meant for legislature and executive is left unoccupied detrimental to public interest, this Court [has] ample jurisdiction under Article 32 read with Articles 141 and 142 of the Constitution to issue necessary directions to the Executive to subserve public interest." The SC has, thus, merely filled "the void, in absence of suitable legislation" pending action by the legislature. The EC has acted well within its mandate and within the Supreme Court's directives. It might be noted, that 25 years ago, legilsators inserted Explanation 1 was in Sub Section (1) of Section 77 of the RP Act. This enabled unaccounted money to be brought into the election system by allowing expenditure of "others" (including the political party, and friends and supporters of candidates), as not being counted as the election expenditure of the candidate. For all these years, Parliament has still not found time to rescind this mischievous amendment. It is in this background that the Supreme Court has moved to fill the gap in legislation.

If Indian democracy aspires to be on par with the advanced democracies of the West, we must not resist steps that enable greater disclosure. After all, as a famous poet once said, "what is freedom of speech if the tongue is cut off". Or what is freedom of the press, if there is widespread illiteracy? In that spirit, what is the meaning of freedom of choice (of electors) if that choice is constrained by a complete blackout of information. Economists take pride in India's growth rate (vis-ŕ-vis China's) since our growth is sweeter and sure-footed, being embellished with democracy. But this democracy suffers gravely from a huge governance deficits, and a lack of electoral reforms. The EC's order is a step in the right direction.

Ajit Ranade
chief economist
abn amro bank, india
tel: +


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