This will help the electorate keep a check on its representatives and how they are guided in their law-making function, especially where a quid pro quo involving vested interests is concerned.
The government did well to accept the Election Commission of India’s (ECI’s) recommendation that candidates contesting elections must mandatorily file their income tax (I-T) returns of the preceding five years and details of offshore assets at the time of filing nomination papers. The new disclosure norms will not only apply to the candidate, but also extend to the spouse and dependents—in case the candidate is a coparcener in a Hindu Undivided Family, such details will be required of every member.
This is a sea-change from the norms earlier, under which candidates were required to submit I-T returns details (self, spouse and dependents) for only the previous year. Although they were required under the law to give PAN details (self, spouse and dependents),most didn’t provide these; the new norms require that these details be provided, and, if there is no PAN allotted, this be explicitly mentioned. The government approved the new norms at the behest of the ECI, since these would make the scrutiny of candidates’ income-history by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) easier. CBDT already scrutinises cases referred to it by the ECI, mostly where the contesting candidate’s assets have seen a phenomenal increase since the last election, where PAN is not disclosed but a candidate’s movable assets total over `5 crore and where the candidate’s new movable assets, compared to the last election, is more than `2 crore.
The new norms will bring in a greater degree of transparency and accountability, especially in cases where the jump in assets of an incumbent seeking re-election is significant. Separate analyses by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) show that, in the Karnataka assembly polls last year, the average assets of 184 MLAs seeking re-election had grown by 64% during the previous term of the assembly; in Madhya Pradesh, 65 of the 230 MLAs elected in 2013, who were also the members of the assembly in its previous term, saw their average assets grow by 300%, from `1.92 crore in 2008 to `5.59 crore in 2013. Similarly, the average assets of each of the 43 MLAs in Arunachal Pradesh, who won in 2004 and re-contested in 2009, rose from `1.1 crore to `2.4 crore—by 2014, it had risen to `6.54 crore.
Thus, the new disclosure norms—covering five years preceding an election—should make it hard for a candidate to hide any ill-gotten wealth. This will help the electorate keep a check on its representatives and how they are guided in their law-making function, especially where a quid pro quo involving vested interests is concerned.
It will also help parties check for secretly renegade affiliates. While the CBDT and ECI are mulling over ways to make the information on the former’s scrutiny of cases referred by the ECI public, I-T returns disclosure as a part of the nomination process will empower voters to question representatives and seek accountability. The government should now move on the other major recommendation made by the ECI, that of making “filing of false affidavit” a corrupt practice under the Representation of People Act—this would lead to the disqualification of the candidate and a bar on her contesting for a period of six years. This is an important recommendation since falsification of facts in the affidavit reflects not just moral ineptitude to hold public office, but also could have serious legal implications.