On June 28, the Election Commission gave effect to an earlier judgement of the Supreme Court by making candidates’ disclosure of criminal record, educational qualifications and financial details mandatory. This was based on the Supreme Court’s decision that the electors have a right to know about the candidate whom they choose for public office. As the Court pointed out, the Commission has the authority to act under Article 324 of the Constitution, and wherever there is void in legislation, it ought to step in.
The response of the political class to the Supreme Court’s decision and Election Commission’s order is disappointing. There are many decent and honest politicians in all parties, who are aware of the crisis of governance affecting our polity and economy. The central issue today is that public office is seen as the quickest route to private gain. Unaccountable power, pelf, privilege, patronage, and petty tyranny have become synonymous with public office, elective or appointed. The loss to the nation is far greater than the private gain to those in power. The politician is more a victim of a vicious process than he is the villain as honesty and political survival are increasingly incompatible. The bureaucracy perhaps is more culpable, and this despite its life-long security provided by constitution. But politicians are elected to change things for the better. They have the ultimate responsibility. And good sense and wisdom demand that they grab opportunities to cleanse the system and enhance the legitimacy of the system.
However, the government dithered when the Election Commission sent proposals on May 14 for changing the rules to provide for full disclosure at the time of nomination. A host of arguments were advanced to bury the issue: it is impossible to implement the Supreme Court directive; it requires a change of law; the Court is encroaching upon the Parliament’s territory; political consensus needs to be evolved among parties; no one can contest if disclosure is mandatory; candidates’ privacy will be invaded; crime syndicates will learn of politicians’ wealth and resort to blackmail and extortion; the people do not care about these disclosures; these reforms are elitist preoccupations, and so on. Our capacity to defend the indefensible is extraordinary. If a small fraction of this energy and innovation went into creative pursuits and governance improvements, India would be a world class economy. All it takes to enforce disclosures is an amendment of Rule 4 of Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. The Election Commission was forced to issue orders under Article 324 only because the government refused to act in time.
The truth is, people, as the ultimate sovereigns have a right to know about candidates. Equating active citizenship with elitism, and glorifying passivity and ignorance are antithetical to democracy. Politicians, whose legitimacy comes from the people’s mandate, are imperiling the system by resisting reform. Politics is about the promotion of people’s happiness. It is too serious a business to be left to politicians alone. The assumption that entrenched political parties have a monopoly on wisdom is dangerous.
We need much richer and focused public debate on governance issues. The sharpest minds in the country and the media have to pay attention to our political process. Mere criticism is counterproductive, and we need to debate and agree on specific reforms. The period of Civil War in the US witnessed high quality debates. Yet the opponents’ intentions were always respected. The early years of our own freedom struggle saw deep analysis and rich debate.
Everyone in public life laments mounting corruption, poor infrastructure, appalling quality of public services, low level of human development, increasing criminalization of politics, judicial overload, and economic retardation on account of poor governance. And yet the political class seems incapable of responding to the challenges except in crisis situations. And in turn, crisis is defined as either fiscal collapse or political instability.
Clearly, enlightened citizens must force reform. Our predicaments are by no means intractable. There are practical, effective answers to most of our problems. The best practices in our own country and abroad serve as useful guides to us. Happily, we live in a glorious age of scientific advancement and communication. The fruits of liberty and technology can easily transform the lives of all our children in a short span of about 15 years. That is the lesson from the experience of the Asian tigers and China. But politicians must act quickly and decisively to make this dream a reality. Candidate disclosure is just the first step in our political reforms. Political funding, voter registration, management of parties, system of election, centralization of power, accountability, judicial delays – all are crying for our attention. The political process, which ought to be the solution, has become the main hurdle. Political reform is the key to our prosperity.