Knowing your candidate

THE LANDMARK SUPREME Court judgment, which directed the Election Commission to ask candidates contesting parliamentary and assembly elections to compulsorily furnish certain personal details, left the E.C. with only two choices. It was either to wait for the Centre to enact suitable legislation to make such affidavits a part of the nomination process or to adopt unilateral measures to the same effect. With the Central Government dragging its feet on the issue and with the Supreme Court's July 2 deadline for the implementation of its directive fast approaching, the E.C. had no option but to take the latter route. The Commission's order, making it mandatory for candidates to provide details about their financial status, their criminal record (if any) and their educational qualifications, gives full effect to the Court's directive. Apart from affirming the voter's right to know about a candidate's antecedents, the measure is an important step towards the admittedly herculean task of cleansing the polity of criminal elements. As the Court stressed in its judgment, knowing more about candidates in the electoral fray affords the "little man" (voter) an opportunity to think things over "before making a choice of electing law breakers as law makers".

In a way though, what is really significant following the May 2 judgment is not what the E.C. did but what the Centre failed to do. The attitude of the Government strongly suggested that it wanted to do nothing more than postpone the implementation of the judgment. How else can one explain the Centre's decision to convene an all-party meeting on July 8, a whole six days after the expiry of the deadline set by the Court? To arrange for a discussion on implementing a court directive on a date by which the directive ought to have been implemented is tantamount to contempt of court. It is not the Government alone which is unhappy with the Court's attempt to make it more difficult for corrupt and criminal elements to enter the country's legislatures. It is a well-known secret that most political parties are against candidates being open to such scrutiny for what are basically narrow and self-serving reasons.

Following the judgment, some politicians have stressed that it is the Legislature and not the courts which should spearhead the move for electoral reform. This is of course how it ideally should be. But it is the very failure of the Legislature and the Executive to prevent the public interest from being harmed which elicits the intervention of the courts. As the Supreme Court pointed out, in such an event the Judiciary enjoys ample powers under Article 32 of the Constitution to issue necessary directions to the Executive to subserve the public interest. A fair election must be, apart from everything else, a transparent one. A procedure which makes candidates disclose their current assets and their past criminal record can only increase transparency by giving voters the information necessary to make a proper choice. There is no logical reason why an E.C., which is empowered to ask candidates about the expenditure they have incurred on an election, should be barred from seeking other details about candidates which are relevant to the very process of making choices. By itself, a rule which makes it mandatory for candidates to furnish financial and other details will not usher in radical changes. It might not necessarily prevent the criminal and the corrupt from continuing to find their way into legislatures. But in a country where urgent measures are needed to restore integrity to public life, it is a step in the right direction.

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