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Article in The Economic Times
Authored by Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan

National Coordinator of
VOTEINDIA movement

Amazing Political Consensus to Keep the Voter in the Dark!
12 May 2002

Marx famously said that every system has its own seeds of destruction embedded in it. To invert the logic, every human predicament has simple, practical solutions. For instance, the best solution to electoral irregularities, criminalization of politics and corruption is the glare of publicity and exposure. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

It is this logic which led to the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court on 2nd May 2002. On an appeal filed by the Union government on a Delhi High Court judgement, the Court directed the Election Commission to "call for certain information on an affidavit by issuing necessary order in exercise of its power under Article 324 of the Constitution from each candidate seeking election to public office as a necessary part of his nomination paper".This information to be obtained includes criminal record or prosecution details, cases pending against the candidate, his assets, liabilities including defaults and overdues to public financial institutions, and educational qualifications.

Enforced properly, this information will help voters make an informed assessment of candidates, and force parties to nominate those with a clean record. This certainly is a significant milestone in the evolution our democracy.

As is said, success has many fathers. A few newspapers and magazines started preparing lists of candidates with criminal record. Then in 1999 Lok Satta movement launched a bold initiative with public participation to screen the candidates for criminal record. A list of 45 candidates with details of their criminal record was released after painstaking effort and thorough verification in the 1999 Lok Sabha and AP Legislative Assembly election. Many on the list were incumbent legislators and ministers. This campaign captured the imagination of the people. The parties and candidates could only make one complaint - that there were others whose names were missing from the list! This screening of candidates, continued since then, has had a salutary effect on criminalization of politics. The process of criminalization was arrested, but not reversed. The media glare and public revulsion forced parties to reject new candidates with criminal record. In one case, a major party was compelled to change its nominee for a Zilla Panchayat president's office because of public pressure. But entrenched politicians with criminal record continued. Based on this data a few concerned citizens (Association for Democratic Reforms and PUCL) filed PILs finally leading to the Supreme Court's judgement.

Amazingly, this case managed to achieve something so elusive in India: it forged a national consensus of the major political parties on an issue of national importance. They all seem united in opposing the SC judgement! The mainstream political parties resisted disclosures with all their might. The Solicitor General, on behalf of the Union government argued that the Court cannot direct any such disclosure of candidates' record, and only Parliament should enact the amendments to law. Political parties alone can decide whether such amendments should be brought and carried out in the Act and Rules. Clearly, the government is neither willing to bring in the legislation, nor does it want disclosure of candidates' antecedents to the voters who are allegedly the ultimate sovereigns. Some democracy! Even more interestingly, Congress Party, which impleaded itself as an intervenor in the case, has also argued that no such disclosure of candidate's record should be ordered. The party argued that only Parliament should decide the question of stopping entry of criminals in politics, or even disclosure of criminal record of candidates and "furnishing of information regarding assets and educational qualification is not at all relevant for contesting election and even for casting votes."

Clearly, the Court judgment directing mere disclosure of candidate's record for voters' information had to be extracted from the teeth of opposition of political parties. A lot more remains to be done. The Election Commission must now issue orders making full disclosure a necessary part of the nomination. Failure to disclose details should entail rejection of nomination. The media should give wide publicity to the candidates' antecedents and enable informed choice by voters. Civil society should launch major efforts to force other electoral reforms - accountable political funding, decriminalization and curbing polling irregularities.

Criminals in politics, monumental corruption, grotesque misgovernance or communal carnage - all these generate predictable reactions in our society. Endless publicity, a lot of self-flagellation, blame throwing, clever power games and, at the end of it all, business-as-usual. Everything is reduced to "who is in power", and not "how to change the way things are run". This statusquoism will not do. No system is perfect. But in a wise system, self-correcting mechanisms are available to prevent perversions and to correct distortions. We need to focus on best practices and improvements in the way we are governed. And there are answers staring us in the face. The political class and bureaucracy are so resistant to change, that even small improvements need heroic efforts. The ball is in civil society's court. Media and the public should check our overwhelming obsession with power games and focus on specific solutions and force reform. Public opinion is the only antidote to this incredible inertia of the establishment. As someone said, if peaceful and orderly change is not possible, violent and chaotic change will be inevitable.




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