Fifty-five years after Independence, there are grave concerns about free and fair elections. There are some who will accept any kind of elections, but a large proportion of the electorate is extremely cynical about elections in India. In elections after elections, more people keep away from polling stations, and this despite polling day being declared a holiday. The average percentage of electors not turning up to vote is now over 40 per cent. Low polling, however, is the least important concern. That would be like a mole or a skin lesion. The fact is that a virulent strain of cancer has spread throughout the body politic.
Let us begin with the political parties and the process of selection and nomination of candidates. No political party,not the Congress, not the BJP, not the Communists, seems capable of keeping out criminals from securing the official nomination. The party leadership is either unaware of the antecedents of the candidates or it is overwhelmed by the money and the clout of the aspirants. Whatever be the reason, it is not possible to rely upon the political parties to ensure that criminals, convicts, undertrials and accused are kept out of the fray.
Next is the election campaign itself. It has been shortened to 14 days. Yet, the single most important factor in an election campaign is money. Every candidate is required to raise his own resources, and what the party gives is a bonus. The capacity to raise and spend a very large amount of money is what opens the door to undesirable candidates. As a result, many politicians befriend criminals and many criminals enter politics.
Candidates, winners and losers like to describe themselves as middle-class, if not poor. Many will not admit to owning property. Most do not pay income tax or wealth tax. Recently, The Indian Express published a list and, according to that list, George Fernandes, Ram Naik, Nitish Kumar, Uma Bharti, Ananth Kumar and Santosh Kumar Gangwar did not pay any income tax in the year in respect of which they filed a statement with the Prime Minister.
Then, there is the question of educational qualifications. The issue may or may not be important for most voters, but it cannot be denied that it is relevant. There is, however, another issue that is both relevant and important, and that is the matter of criminal cases. Since we cannot depend upon political parties to keep criminals out, we must find some other way. That way, I believe, is to disqualify anyone who has been convicted or against whom charges in respect of serious crimes are drawn up by a court. Any disqualification has to be provided by law. It may not be feasible to enact such a law immediately, but the first step in this direction is disclosure of criminal cases which are pending and which have ended in conviction.
The key word is disclosure, not disqualification. Disclose educational qualifications, disclose assets, disclose criminal background. More than anyone else, the Supreme Court was aware that disqualification could only be under a law made by Parliament, but disclosure could be mandated under existing provisions of the Constitution. On May 2, 2002 the Supreme Court delivered a judgement resting its conclusions on the following two provisions of the Constitution:
Article 324: The superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and the conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every State and of elections to the offices of President and Vice-President held under this Constitution shall be vested in a Commission (referred to in this Constitution as the Election Commission).
Article 19(1): All citizens shall have the right (a) to freedom of speech and expression.
Firstly, the Court read the word elections as free and fair elections and held that it was used in a wide sense to include the entire process of elections. Secondly, the Court held that a voter speaks or expresses himself by casting a vote and thus gave a new meaning to speech and expression. It was creative jurisprudence at its best.
The leadership of political parties should have seized the opportunity. One would have thought that the party of the freedom struggle would lead the way or the party with a difference would occupy the moral heights. Both failed the people, at least initially. The Congress has since tried to make amends; the BJP is still caught in the web of words woven by its spokespersons. Twenty-one political parties (or 20 if you count the Congress out) have joined hands to support an Ordinance that directly challenges the judgement of the Supreme Court.
In the name of electoral reforms, we have an Ordinance which: * requires a candidate to disclose only certain convictions and certain chargesheets;
* requires furnishing of information on assets and liabilities only after a candidate is elected, but does not provide for disclosure even thereafter;
* prohibits a candidate from disclosing anything else (the judgement of the Supreme Court be damned).
The Ordinance adds little or nothing to the existing legal provisions. It is not intended to advance electoral reforms; on the contrary, it is designed to perpetuate the present corrupt and criminalised process of elections. It is not a law for disclosure, it is a law that will promote obfuscation.
The people of India have seen though the game being played by our leading political parties. Witness the expression of outrage in the letters columns of newspapers. Public-spirited citizens will definitely challenge the Ordinance in the Supreme Court. If our political parties think they have drawn the lines for a Parliament vs Supreme Court battle, they should think again. It is Parliament vs People, and ultimately the People will prevail. If the Congress party wants to be on the side of the people, it should unequivocally denounce the Ordinance and lead the legal challenge in the Supreme Court.
(The author is former Union finance minister)