Candidates have a right to privacy from voters: SC judgment

They need not bare details which are of no concern to voters or of relevance to the candidature for public office, SC said

Updated - April 09, 2024 10:20 pm IST

Published - April 09, 2024 03:16 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A Supreme Court judgment that “substantial” asset that open a window to the voter into the lifestyle or affluence of a candidate need to be disclosed.

A Supreme Court judgment that “substantial” asset that open a window to the voter into the lifestyle or affluence of a candidate need to be disclosed. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

The Supreme Court on April 9 held that an election candidate has a right to privacy from voters and need not lay out every scrap of his or her personal life and possessions, past and present, for the electorate to examine with a magnifying glass.

A Bench of Justices Aniruddha Bose and Sanjay Kumar said a candidate’s choice to retain his privacy on matters which were of no concern to the voters or were irrelevant to his candidature for public office did not amount to a ‘corrupt practice’ under Section 123 of the Representation of People Act, 1951. Such non-disclosure would not amount to a “defect of a substantial nature” under Section 36(4) of the 1951 Act.

Justice Kumar, who wrote the judgment, observed there was no compulsion on a candidate to lay his life threadbare for the electorate to prod and scrutinise.

“It is not necessary that a candidate declare every item of movable property that he or his dependent family members own, such as clothing, shoes, crockery, stationery and furniture, etc, unless these items are of such value as to constitute a sizeable asset in itself or reflect upon his candidature, in terms of his lifestyle, and require to be disclosed,” Justice Kumar distinguished.

But the Court said every case would turn on its own peculiarities on what would amount to a non-disclosure of assets of a substantial nature. Suppressing information about a collection of expensive watches from voters would be a substantial defect.

“However, if a candidate and his family members each own a simple watch, which is not highly-priced, suppression of the value of such watches may not amount to a defect at all. Each case would, therefore, have to be judged on its own facts,” Justice Kumar illustrated.

The judgment came in a petition filed by Arunachal Pradesh MLA Karikho Kri challenging a Gauhati High Court decision in July last year declaring his election to the 44-Tezu Assembly Constituency of Arunachal Pradesh void for not declaring three vehicles as his assets in his affidavit filed in Form No 26 appended to the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961.

Mr. Kri had won the elections on May 23, 2019 as an Independent candidate. The vehicles in question were a Kinetic Zing Scooty, a Maruti Omni van used as an ambulance and a TVS Star City motorcycle. The scooter was sold as scrap in 2009. The other two vehicles were also sold. The High Court did not examine the statements of the buyers.

Ruling in favour of Mr. Kri, the Supreme Court agreed with Mr. Kri’s lawyers, senior advocates C.A. Sundaram, Siddharth Dave, advocate-on-record Gautam Talukdar and advocates Simranjeet Singh, Pulkit Gupta, Raushal Kumar, Lovenish Jagdhane and Apurbaa Dutta , that vehicles, once sold, could hardly be considered as “assets” of the candidate.

“Non-disclosure of the three vehicles cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be treated as an attempt on his [Kri] part to unduly influence the voters, thereby inviting the wrath of Section 123(2) [corrupt practices] of the Act of 1951,” Justice Kumar concluded.

Besides, the Court pointed out that the joint and declared worth of Mr. Kri was ₹8,41,33,815 cumulatively. Their total income was worth ₹11,72,91,634.

“The value of the three vehicles in question, by comparison, would be a mere miniscule of this figure,” the court reasoned.

Justice Kumar said the declaration of assets by candidates was meant to further democratic participation by citizens and enhance the right to information of the voters so that they could cast their votes rationally and intelligently.

The Court said voters have a right to the disclosure of information which was essential for choosing the candidate for whom a vote should be cast.

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