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DESPITE near universal condemnation, there was little surprise that the all-party meeting convened by the prime minister to discuss the ramifications of the 28 May Election Commission order requiring each candidate to furnish information to the Returning Officer on past criminal convictions, pending criminal cases carrying a conviction of more than two years, assets, liabilities (in particular, public dues) and educational qualifications expressed a unanimous consensus. As when deciding on salaries and perks for legislators, our political class, across all divides, spoke in one voice.

Be it Jaipal Reddy, H.K. Surjeet, A.B. Bardhan or Ravi Shankar Prasad, all would have us believe that the EC order, itself based on a Supreme Court judgement and directions, spelt the doom of legislative privilege and power. ‘Only the legislature has the prerogative to make law. This is a surreptitious move on behalf of other statutory and constitutional bodies to usurp the power of the legislature.’ Or words to that effect. Little do our political leaders realise that this show of resolve has only strengthened the general unease about the integrity of our political class.

In itself the EC order appears unexceptionable. For years now everyone, politicians included, have bemoaned the decline of our political culture, much of it traceable to the growing role of money and muscle power. Ever so often there are high sounding discussions on electoral and political reform highlighting the need to bring in fresh legislation to amend extant law. And yet, despite the seeming consensus on the Dinesh Goswami report and the brave declamations in the special session of Parliament organised on the 50th anniversary of Independence, the net result has been a conspicuous inaction.

Clearly our political class is confident about its impunity. No wonder, when the Delhi High Court admitted a PIL on the citizen’s right to basic information about electoral candidates such that an ‘informed choice’ could be exercised, neither the government nor any of the political parties took any serious interest in the matter. Even after the matter went to the Supreme Court, it was only citizen’s groups like Lok Satta of Hyderabad or the intrepid professors of IIM Ahmedabad responsible for initiating the PIL,who bothered to inform the general public of the issues at state.

Now, of course, that the EC has issued its order, and the Supreme Court has upheld its legality pending passage of new legislation, the cat seems to be among the pigeons. Suddenly we are informed that the EC order is pernicious, that it unduly empowers Returning Officers who can now reject nominations on myriad specious grounds, that the demand for such information violates the privacy of candidates and that, if needed, the information can be submitted to the Speaker of the House. Clearly, for all the valorisation that our politicians indulge in of the public as a ‘court of final appeal’, they would much rather trust themselves than the ordinary people.

Are we, in so arguing, falling prey to the widespread disgust, particularly among urban middle class professionals, for our politicians? Is it that such moves, partly based on a textbook understanding of electoral democracy, actually narrow options for sharing political power, particularly for the emerging leadership from erstwhile ‘kept out’ groups? It is also worth remembering that the recent years have witnessed an unusual exercise of autonomy and power, particularly by the courts, leading episodically to an encroaching on executive and legislative functions. Both environmental and human rights jurisprudence has resulted in a passage of intrusive orders and directions to government, sometimes unthinkingly, thereby highlighting a danger of disturbing the fragile balance between the different wings of governance.

Nevertheless, the current stand-off can by no means be construed as a fight between the Supreme Court and Parliament. Nor can the EC order be seen as transgressing the limits of its statutory functions. We all want a cleaner politics. And working out ways in which individuals of a dubious background and record can be restrained from becoming lawmakers, not by executive fiat (as we are seeing in neighbouring Pakistan under the Musharraf regime) but by enabling the voters to know otherwise hidden ‘facts’ about the candidates, can only strengthen democracy.

The government now promises to bring in new legislation, based on all-party consensus, in the near future. It is for the fledgling citizen’s movement, which has enjoyed some success in both widening the debate and getting the support of the EC and the Supreme Court, to remain vigilant and engaged. Otherwise, as has so often happened before, we may be saddled with a toothless or unimplimentable law, one which ensures that our lawmakers remain both beyond the law and public scrutiny.

Harsh Sethi