If we keep quiet now, the politicians of the country will soon enact a law to deny us the fundamental Right to Information about our prospective candidates. And we will have only ourselves to blame. Today it is our Right to know, tomorrow it could be our liberty. If murderers and rapists and dacoits are not disqualified, the worst of things becomes possible.
What have they done that is so alarming? Expressing righteous indignation at territorial invasion by the Supreme Court and cleverly taking advantage of a needless inclusion in the EC’s Order (the discretion of the returning officer to reject a nomination), the politicians have introduced with lightning speed a new bill in Parliament to protect themselves from having to disclose all information regarding their criminal antecedents, and maintained a deafening silence on information relating to their assets and liabilities.
What's clear from a careful reading of the Bill is that:
- This Bill is drafted with an express intent to nullify the SC judgment of 2nd May and the EC order of June 28.
- The EC’s jurisdiction under Art 324 is sought to be nullified in respect of any disclosures in future.
- The new disqualification is only for two separate charges framed for extremely grave offences like murder, rape or dacoity - that too prior to six months before nomination. Meaning that if a person has committed one murder or one rape, he is still eligible to contest. Meaning that scrutiny begins only when a person is into his second murder or rape. Meaning that a candidate is not disqualified if charged by a competent court for the offence of a murder or rape only a few months (ie less than six months) before election. Meaning that a candidate who has committed a second rape or murder will not be disqualified if the criminal proceeding against him is stayed by an order of a court of competent jurisdiction. The Bill in effect is an attempt in legal language to give an impression to the lay person that some effort is being made to curb criminalization of politics. The net effect of this provision will be marginal at best and in fact this is a red herring to draw attention away from disclosure of financial details, which the government is hell bent on avoiding.
- If this law stands as it is, there is no possibility of future disclosures of candidate's assets and liabilities.
This Bill raises some genuine concerns which civil society should address:
- Does the legislature have the right to abridge the citizens' fundamental right to information which is guaranteed under Art 19 of the Constitution?
- What happens if a candidate commits a second murder just a few months before the election and is charged with the offence by a competent court? Have we come to such a sorry pass that even for extremely gave offences, if charges are framed within six months prior to nomination, the candidate cannot be disqualified ? And do we require two such separate offences to think of disqualifying a candidate? Is this a rehabilitation programme for hardened criminals?
What can we do? Plenty. Irrespective of the outcome on legislative and legal fronts, informed and assertive citizenry can make disclosures through civil society initiatives and media support a reality. We have the power to stop this absurd bill that allows those who have committed more than one murder or rape to be disqualified. No law prevents us from institutionalizing disclosures through citizens’ efforts.
Our efforts in the last few months are not a waste. We are much better off than we were a few months ago. Electoral reform is now occupying center stage in public domain. Media is taking up the issue of clean elections very seriously. The cause of democracy has received a great boost. If we act with clarity, conviction and a strategic sense, we may yet get full disclosures as a fundamental right, irrespective of any legislation. The battle has only begun.
No job one is doing right now can be more important than safeguarding our own rights, liberty and life. If we do not act now, we forfeit the right to criticize the politicians and should actually take partial responsibility for the sorry state of affairs.