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Saturday, March 29, 2003

The recent March 13 Supreme Court judgment on disclosure of candidate details raised several interesting questions. Many well-meaning and concerned citizens are asking: Will we really get information on candidates? Don’t disclosures disqualify candidates? Does it not affect the candidates’ privacy? Don’t people know the antecedents of candidates anyway? Is it enough to cleanse elections? What can people do now? etc. If we have to proceed further in the cause of democratic reforms, we need to find honest and sensible answers to these questions.

First, let us examine our right to get information. Over the years, the Supreme Court held that Right to Information is an integral part of our fundamental right (freedom of expression) guaranteed under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. In the judgments on May 2, 2002 and now, the Court merely extended that right to include relevant information relating to candidates. It is reasonable to presume that the criminal antecedents, financial details and educational qualifications are relevant to citizens before deciding on the desirability and competence of a candidate. The issue here is that people have a fundamental right to know about those who formally seek elective public office. This entitlement cannot be questioned or surrendered. Disclosure is not disqualification. Disqualification of candidates is governed by Sec. 8 of Representation of the People Act, 1951. Disclosure is merely to help the public to make informed choices.

Second, the question of privacy. Certainly we have no right to pry into the private affairs of individuals. But the moment a person seeks power over public affairs, he must make public that part of his life which has a bearing on his public duties. Where there is a clash between individual right to privacy and the community’s right to proper representation, the former must yield to the latter.

Third, are disclosures really necessary? Don’t people knowingly vote for criminals and corrupt people anyway? True, many known criminals are elected. But disclosure does two things. It makes the candidate’s record the key issue in public mind. Elections are fought on many issues, and candidate’s antecedents are often relegated to the background. Disclosure puts the spotlight on the candidate. And parties will be compelled to defend their choice of candidates. This will in turn force parties to rethink. All parties have decent elements. Disclosure norms will embolden them to resist nomination of known criminals and those with undisclosed assets. LOK SATTA’s disclosure campaign in Andhra Pradesh forced parties to desist from nominating criminals afresh, though established politicians with criminal record continue. Criminalization has thus been arrested, though not reversed. Disclosure and media and public pressure do make a significant difference over a period of time by changing parties' behaviour.

Fourth, but is disclosure sufficient to cleanse elections? Not at all. Disclosure is a significant and necessary step, but by no means sufficient. There are no panaceas to set our system right. Several far-reaching changes – funding reforms, political party regulation, proportional representation, and clearer separation of powers – are necessary to make our political process transparent and accountable. Disclosure is one important instrument in the overall scheme of political reform, and could hasten the reform process.

Fifth, the ball is now in people’s court. People’s voice and civil society pressure did make a difference and made disclosures mandatory. Now the Parliament cannot dilute disclosures as they are part of our fundamental rights. But we still need to do two things. We need to publicize the candidate details, encourage more informed voting and bring pressure on parties. And we need to focus on the other important goals of political reform. Strident criticism, wringing our hands in despair, and unending cynicism will not do. If we want a better India, we must work for it with clarity, good sense, and optimism. A few well-meaning citizens cannot carry the burden of the whole nation on their shoulders. We need active citizens, not inveterate critics.

Finally, democracy is about people. We are the true sovereigns, and all public functionaries are our servants. Parliament and government are subordinate to our will. An overwhelming majority of people is in favour of disclosures. In a people's ballot organized by LOK SATTA – first of its kind on such a scale – nearly a million people participated, and 98.4% of them supported disclosures. There can be no further argument on the subject. People want it, and they shall get it. Vox populi, Vox dei!

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