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Sunday, May 12, 2002

The recent Supreme Court judgment on compulsory declaration of criminal record, assets, liabilities and educational qualifications by candidates for elective office is a shot in the arm for all enthusiasts of democratic reform.  There is a German saying which describes politics as the patient drilling through thick planks.  This judgment typifies the hard work and collaboration required to get anything moving in a large and plural democracy. Relentless and single-minded pursuit of specific goals is what yields enduring results. Several newspapers have been making efforts over the years to list candidates with criminal record. Then, in 1999 Lok Satta’s Election Watch movement screened the antecedents of candidates for criminal record and released a list of 45 such candidates. This campaign with full public participation captured the imagination of the people. While entrenched politicians with criminal record continued, parties were forced to deny seats to new candidates with dubious antecedents. In one case, the candidate for Zilla Parishad president’s office had to be changed by a major party on account of public pressure.

Armed with this data, a group of concerned citizens (Association for Democratic Reforms) filed a PIL before Delhi High Court seeking disclosure of candidate’s antecedents at the time of nomination. The High Court gave such an order in November 2000, and the union government promptly went in appeal against it. This judgment of the Supreme Court is the final outcome of this tortuous process.

All this proves four things. First, results do flow from painstaking work, provided you have clarity of goals, the objectives are self-evidently sensible, and you know how to pursue them. Second, professionalism and insights into governance processes are the keys to successful citizens’ initiatives. Third, the political parties and bureaucracy as a class will resist all positive change. While there are distinguished public servants who are our allies, the establishment suffers from too much inertia to reform from within. In this case, for instance, both the union government and Congress party opposed before Supreme Court disclosure of the record of candidates. Power games and vote bank politics force parties to take adversarial positions for public consumption. But all mainstream parties have the same cynical and self-serving approach to politics and public life. Fourth, a lot more remains to be done to cleanse our polity. This is only scratching the surface. We need to persuade the Election Commission to frame regulations making declaration of criminal records, assets, liabilities and educational qualifications a necessary part of nomination. Non-declaration should entail rejection of the nomination. Then we should ensure that media widely disseminates this information and voters make informed choices. Most of all, other electoral reforms to curb criminalization, end polling irregularities, and ensure accountable use of money should be achieved.

But first things first. Now we should ensure that the Supreme Court judgment is not merely a pious declaration of intent. All of us, citizens everywhere, should write to the Election Commission to make the declaration mandatory at the time of nomination, failure of which will lead to its rejection. Lakhs of post cards and emails to the Commission at Nirvachan Sadan, Ashok Road, New Delhi – 1 will demonstrate public will. Shenanigans of political parties will fail in the face of such clear expression of public opinion.

Ours may be a flawed democracy, but it is still a genuine and robust one in many ways. Citizens who fail to assert forfeit their right to complain. We all need to make our views heard, and force change. Politics and governance are too important to be left to politicians alone.

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