Use of criminals to settle electoral issues is a scourge that threatens to destroy people's faith in politics. Educating the voter on the antecedents of the candidates is a step in the direction of checking the practice.
NOW that we are all set for the elections to the Lok Sabha and some State Assemblies, one question that is uppermost in our minds is how violent it is going to be. If the past is anything to go by, we may expect the usual degree of bloodshed and loss of precious lives. This is because I do not detect any change in mindset around me. When candidates are seen as being chosen on the basis of the caste to which they belong or the amount of money they can bring in, you obviously cannot expect anything else. There is, however, a silver lining. I must compliment my good friend Chief Election Commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy - we were trained together in Mussoorie way back in 1963 - for beginning his innings with an exhortation that parties should keep the elections clean and inject only really deserving candidates into the stream. He has the stature and credibility to make everyone in the system think in terms of fighting the elections clinically and in good spirit by keeping bitterness out. After all, we have proved to the rest of the world that we are not only the biggest democracy, but the most dynamic and focused one as well.
It has been well established - following the breaking of the stranglehold that the Congress party had over the polity - that no one party holds the monopoly over power, and that power changes hands periodically in an eminently constitutional manner and without violence. The example of Tamil Nadu alone is enough to prove the point. This is the greatness of our system, and is one factor that should persuade all parties to strengthen, rather than weaken it through corrupt and violent means. We have, therefore, huge stakes in terms of image, and if we are indeed patriotic, we would strive hard in the next few weeks to ensure that such an image remains untarnished.
WHAT are the hard realities on the ground? The temptation to use money and muscle power is real. We saw this in stark images when the Bharatiya Janata Party tried to induct a colourful personality with a shady past into its ranks. I must compliment that party for admitting its mistake and quickly showing the door to that gentleman. What surprises me, however, is that a party of such enviable past should yield to the temptation of banking on a dubious character for some small undetermined gains at a time when everything is going well for it.
This is the tragedy of the Indian scene. If a party with stalwarts like Atalji and Advaniji whom I have watched at close quarters, with great admiration for their poise and unquestioned belief in basic values could succumb to questionable methods, what can we say of parties of a lesser standing. So we are talking here of an ambience that promotes easy virtues and plays with values by offering gains which are alluring, but ephemeral.
What goes under the rubric of `criminalisation of politics' has many implications for the future of our polity. It is easy to say that we are against the use of criminals and criminal force to settle electoral issues. It is an entirely different proposition if we say that we can eliminate this scourge, which threatens to destroy our faith in value-based politics. There are both legal and moral issues here. I am struck by the clarity of two leading voices, Rajeev Dhavan ("Voter vs Politician", The Hindu,) and Jayprakash Narayan ("The roots of criminalised politics", The Economic Times), both writing on March 5. How I wish these two pieces would be translated into regional languages and distributed widely among voters. No political party will hazard this because such an exercise could be suicidal and send out of business the thugs set at large by some elements in the polity, directly or through the underworld. Educating the electorate, especially those in rural India, is a noble cause that should be taken up by non-governmental organisations, if only to clarify the basic issues for the benefit of voters without trying to influence their decisions.
The Supreme Court's rulings in the "democratic reform cases" of 2002 and 2003 clearly bestow on the voter the right to be provided information on a candidate's assets and his involvement in any criminal case. The issue had initially been successfully fought in the Andhra Pradesh High Court by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) with whom the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) joined cause later when the Union government took the matter to the Supreme Court in an appeal. The May 2, 2002, judgment of the Supreme Court required every candidate to file an affidavit before the Election Commission on his past criminal record if any, at the time of filing his nomination.
This was sought to be quickly nullified by the Union government through an Ordinance and later the Representation of the People (Third Amendment) Act. The Act merely demanded information from each candidate of any case in which charges had been framed and were pending. He could, however, be silent about any past conviction. Outraged by this dilution of the apex court's direction, the PUCL took the issue back to the court.
The court gave its ruling on March 13, 2003, reiterating its earlier position that every voter had a fundamental right to know the antecedents of a candidate. The net result is that a candidate has now to file an affidavit not only about his past but about pending charges (dating back to six months prior to the filing of the nomination) as well. While furnishing a false affidavit will not be a ground for rejection, non-filing of one will attract such a penalty. This is the current law on the subject.
One may question the utility of the whole system of affidavits being filed before the Returning Officer. How does one get to know what is contained in such affidavits? It is learnt that the Election Commission has directed Returning Officers to furnish copies to whoever asks for them. This seems sensible. The fact that this facility is available even to rival candidates is one guarantee against suppression of information. But then, what happens in a constituency where a majority of candidates do in fact have a criminal record and agree not to sling mud at one another? Possibly this is the worst-case scenario that one cannot provide for.
To meet such a scenario, why cannot the Returning Officer post the affidavits on a bulletin board at his office for everyone to see? Additionally, he can publicise them through advertisements in regional papers. This could be an expensive proposition but is well worth it, considering the qualitative difference it could make to voter perceptions. A candidate cannot obviously complain of an infringement of his right to privacy. If he stands for a public office, this is the minimum exposure that he should be subjected to.
By all accounts there is an abundant supply of thugs in the market. The number swells as election day approaches. They are used for abducting candidates or threatening their relatives, as also for creating a scare on the polling day to keep law-abiding citizens away from polling stations. Booth-capturing is another criminal activity that is carried out with relish in States such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The disease is spreading to the south of the Vindhyas as well. Pouring in police forces, especially of the Central government, has limited impact because of the wide geographical spread.
What about the State police? As long as it remains under the thumb of the Executive, it can hardly do anything if a ruling party itself unleashes violence. You can hardly fault a Director-General of Police or the men under him if they look the other way when anti-social elements, with the blessings of those in power, indulge in lawlessness in order to get the better of their political opponents. I can vividly recall how this happened in an urban constituency in Tamil Nadu more than three decades ago. The idea was to intimidate a section of the population that was opposed to the ruling party and was determined to vote against its candidate. The police chief was shown the door after the elections for the "sin" that he committed in effectively offering protection to this harried group. This may be ancient history but its lessons are hard to forget. The simple truth is that as long as elections are held under the present dispensation, a party in power has an unfair advantage in the form of the might of the official machinery, especially the police, that can be used to browbeat all its opponents. This is why Rajaji demanded President's Rule during elections, a plea that was questioned at the time he made it, but is being conceded now by some enlightened elements. Such a unique arrangement will not see an end to election-related violence, but it will considerably strengthen police hands in combating it.
The Election Commission needs to be lauded for many of its innovations aimed at bringing parity between candidates in terms of facilities. There is, however, a growing cynicism over its clout. This is especially in respect of its authority over the higher bureaucracy that is directly charged with the conduct of elections. Where it has recommended punitive departmental action against civil servants found guilty of partisanship, the Central Administrative Tribunal has reversed the Commission's directive in quite a few instances. This phenomenon cannot but encourage rabid elements in the bureaucracy to throw caution to the wind and indulge in blatant favouritism, including turning a blind eye to violence.
In the ultimate analysis, the right to information conferred on the average voter is only a small step towards eliminating the thug from the electoral process. The voter should be made to understand that ignoring such information will be perilous not only to himself but his progeny as well. Till this realisation sets in, such inputs to him for making a decision will be of little avail.
One final question. What does he do when two prominent rival candidates, one of whom he would like to choose, have both criminal records? It is here that what Krishnamurthy suggested recently assumes importance. He has recommended to government that possibly the ballot paper could contain a column where the voter could say that none of the candidates was acceptable to him. This seems bizarre. If implemented, it however, could give us an idea of the quality of candidates in the fray. This could lead to a revelation of sorts.