Tuesday, Aug 13, 2002
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By P. P. Rao
THE CONSTITUTION provided for adult suffrage so that the people could govern themselves through their representatives chosen in free and fair elections. Political parties provide democratic choices to the electorate. Democracy functioned well when the country was run by statesmen who identified themselves with, and behaved as servants of, the people. Today, we are governed by politicians who share power with criminals. In the words of Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998), "the electoral system has been almost totally subverted by money power, muscle power and vote bank considerations of castes and communities. Elections are not entirely free and fair; they are not reflecting the true will and aspirations of the people". The Law Commission's Report on Electoral Reforms and the recent Report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution have noticed the steady deterioration in the standards, practices and pronouncements of the political class which fights the elections. In view of the increasing number of contestants with serious criminal antecedents they suggested measures to check money power, muscle power, corrupt practices and unfair means which are freely employed to win elections. All political parties are aware that electoral reforms are a necessity. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in its election manifesto (1999) proclaimed: "We will introduce necessary electoral reforms on the basis of the recommendations of the Goswami Committee, the Inderjit Gupta Committee and the Law Commission so as to deal with the malaise of defections, corruption and criminalisation of politics, and to prevent electoral malpractices." The voters who believed them are totally disillusioned.
The Congress too declared in its manifesto: "The Congress is fully committed to radical electoral reforms to reduce the influence of money and muscle power and to check the criminalisation of politics at all levels." The combined strength of the NDA and the Congress in Parliament is adequate to effectuate all reforms, electoral and constitutional, but they will not sit together and push through the necessary measures.
In May, the Supreme Court upheld the people's right to know their candidates and directed the Election Commission (E.C.) to call for an affidavit from each candidate seeking election to Parliament or a State Legislature about his criminal antecedents, assets, liabilities and educational qualifications. The E.C.'s order has brought all political parties together; not for ridding politics of criminals or to carry out comprehensive reforms, but to shield candidates with questionable antecedents. Political parties exist for serving people. In their wisdom they have decided to oppose the people's right tooth and nail. Their objections are: (i) The Supreme Court and the E.C. have no power to issue directions to candidates and Returning Officers; (ii) the order notified by the E.C. is contrary to the Representation of the People Act (R.P. Act) which impliedly rules out any new disqualification other than those specified in the Act; (iii) the information sought is irrelevant, unwarranted and cumbersome to furnish; (iv) the Returning Officer cannot be trusted to act fairly; (v) vindictive Chief Ministers can foist cases on political rivals; (vi) political leaders go to jail often for organising or participating in dharnas, bandhs and hartals and it is difficult to give accurate particulars of all those cases; (vii) educational qualifications do not make any difference; and (viii) the prescribed affidavit is too long, running into over 40 pages.
It is too late to question the Supreme Court's power to interpret the Constitution and declare that the right to freedom of speech and expression in Article 19(1)(a) includes the right to information. In the instant case, the Court merely applied the law settled in the Judges' case (1982), Cricket Association case (1995) and Dinesh Trivedi's case (1997). The power of the E.C. to issue statutory orders and directions in virgin areas is also settled in Mohinder Singh Gill's case (1978). Interpreting Article 324, which confers power of superintendence, direction and control of elections on the E.C., the Court held that the power includes the right to issue binding orders to supplement the provisions of the R.P. Act and the Conduct of Election Rules in the interest of free and fair election. The same view was reiterated in later cases. It is equally futile to contend that the E.C.'s order is contrary to the provisions of the R.P. Act and the Rules. There is no provision either in the R.P. Act or in the Rules which prohibits seeking relevant information from contesting candidates. Moreover, the right to information flows from the Constitution itself and neither the R.P. Act nor the Rules can abridge that right.
Information about assets and liabilities of a candidate, his spouse and dependents is relevant. In fact, the Court should have gone a step further to include two more items, the source of livelihood of the candidate and the extent of his family's assets and liabilities when he entered politics. It is said that to disclose all the assets and liabilities would be too cumbersome and if a candidate omits to mention a small item of jewellery or a pending electricity or telephone bill, his nomination would be liable to be rejected. This specious plea has no merit. Under the Prevention of Corruption Act, possession of assets by public servants disproportionate to their known sources of income is an offence. The public servants know how assets and liabilities are computed for calculating disproportionate assets. No one in his senses would consider a pending telephone/electricity bill an undischarged liability.
Parliament itself has conferred the power of scrutiny of nomination papers on Returning Officers (Sec. 36(2) of the R.P. Act). The E.C. has no option but to use the existing election machinery for deciding objections to the affidavits to be furnished by candidates as a necessary part of their nomination papers. Without the power of rejection, the entire exercise would be meaningless.
Who is to be blamed if some of the Chief Ministers misuse the official machinery to frame political opponents? This is an in-house problem of politicians as a class. Having allowed the democratic institutions to degenerate to this level, they cannot blame the E.C. Information about criminal antecedents is absolutely necessary to keep out criminals and persons charged with crimes involving moral turpitude and to identify the political parties which field such candidates. To begin with, criminals kept away from politics. In due course when politicians began to rely on them for winning elections, they realised their relevance and started entering politics in a big way and getting elected. If the present trend continues, there is every possibility of criminals capturing political parties, dislodging political leaders. It will be in the interest of survival of the political class itself to accept such judgments and orders which help the people to contain corrupt and criminal elements.
Educational qualifications indicate the equipment of a candidate to effectively participate in the business of the House. Nobody would like to vote for a candidate who can only raise his hands or record his vote or join his flock in rushing to the well of the House or staging a walkout. The Constitution-makers appreciated the need for educational qualification, but considering the massive illiteracy prevailing then, wisely refrained from prescribing in order to make democracy meaningful to the enfranchised masses. The Constitution mandated the state to provide within a period of ten years free and compulsory education to every child until he attained the age of 14 years. Had this directive been implemented, by now there would have been no illiterate person below the age of 60 years. The failure of successive Governments to achieve this constitutional target even after 40 years constrained the Supreme Court to declare in 1993 that children had a fundamental right to education.
The solidarity of the political parties in stalling electoral reforms reveals the extent of the hold over them of corrupt and criminal elements.
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