Disclosure norms

TRILOCHAN SASTRY

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THIS article takes a self-critical look at the shortcomings of the nascent movement on electoral reforms based on the right to information. We focus on recent developments, both failures and the way forward, rather than on any conceptual discussion or on overall governance issues. Our analysis shows that the money spent by candidates and political parties during elections has reached mammoth proportions and is a root cause of declining standards of governance.

The key developments have been (i) the Supreme Court judgments of 2 May 2002 and 13 March 2003 mandating disclosure of financial, educational and criminal background if any of all candidates contesting Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and legislative elections, (ii) the Election Commission directives to ensure access by voters of this information before casting their votes, (iii) the extension of disclosure norms by various states to the local body elections, (iv) the active involvement of civil society in monitoring elections and the emergence of a network of civil society organizations in our country, (v) media attention on criminalization in politics, and (vi) a healthy working relationship between civil society, media and the EC to improve the electoral process.

This movement has had other spin-off benefits as well. The two major political parties have asked ticket aspirants to disclose this information to party bosses before distributing tickets. A bill on electoral expenses has been passed. There are several PILs pending in the Supreme Court on electoral issues. The Election Commission recently wrote a detailed 39 page letter to the prime minister asking for various electoral reforms. There are instances where ordinary people have used candidate disclosure to get undesirable candidates defeated. The judiciary at the highest level, the bureaucracy and the political system are now fully cognisant of these developments.

Impressive though all this might seem, the truth is that merely a beginning has been made and there are serious shortcomings and lacunae in these developments. The most important are the lack of any specified penalty for false disclosure, continued use of money and muscle power in elections, and over 115 MPs with criminal records being elected to the 2004 Lok Sabha (over 20%) (see Table 1). The movement also needs to be widened and considerably deepened if it is to have a positive impact. The disclosure norms have two important lacunae. First, income need not be declared, only assets and liabilities. Second, the source of income and assets need not be declared.

To be fair, these gaps are not the fault of the Supreme Court, but that of the petitioners who did not specifically ask for this in their PIL. These disclosures pertain to candidates’ personal information. A similar gap exists in the declaration of electoral expenses. There is no way a voter can find out how a candidate’s campaign was funded. This is vital for a democracy since an elected representative can compromise the interests of the people if (s)he has received substantial funds from vested interests. This is particularly true in an era of globalization when unaccounted money flowing to the political system has increased as in the case of Enron, Monsanto and other such organizations. The source of electoral funding is therefore vital.

Another major gap in this movement is the lack of any strategy or focus on political party reforms. Two issues, in particular, beg for reform. One is publicly available audited accounts of political parties. The right to information campaigns perhaps need to consider this issue carefully. The second is inner-party democracy. The oft-repeated cliché is that political parties that are themselves not democratic cannot ensure real democracy in our country.

 

If we consider the principal actors in this domain – the Election Commission (EC), civil society, the judiciary, the government, political parties and the media – each has a role to play in the way forward. We cannot really discuss the role of the judiciary since it can at best respond to petitions and issues that come before the courts. Similarly, the political parties have too much at stake in an already risky game of power to really pay serious attention to reforms. That leaves the EC, civil society and the media.

 

The EC is doing an excellent job; it is also pushing for several reforms, but might want to consider the following issues. First, ensure that its own rules and regulations are properly implemented. This includes the issue of candidate affidavits and action against those with false or incomplete information therein, non-filing of electoral expense statements, and ensuring that rules governing political parties already in place are enforced. It also needs to make public the reports by election observers. At present the EC has objected to this. Apparently such reports contain ‘sensitive’ information that is merely general in nature. However, the portions of the reports that are factual can and should be made public.

As mentioned earlier, civil society needs to widen and deepen its network at this stage. Several citizen Election Watch groups exist in various states and in the last elections a network of a few hundred organizations came together to monitor the process. However, a rough estimate shows that the total funds available to this network all over the country is less than what one candidate from one party spends in one constituency. Funds are not the only benchmark to measure the impact of an initiative, but the odds at present are stacked against civil society and the people. Another major factor is the wide variety of issues that not-for-profits work on – poverty, governance, empowerment, displacement, livelihoods, rights of marginalized communities and so on. Electoral reform in this context is likely to remain a lower priority. Fortunately, elections are still so important that many organizations work on this at least during the elections.

In my judgment, deepening and widening the movement would require two things. One is to link itself to the right to information campaigns. Second is to actively involve the influential amongst the political system, the bureaucracy and civil society. A stronger role for lobbying is needed. This would require funds with its inevitable consequences of corruption, compromise and power seeking even among NGOs. To avoid this, institute an agni pariksha where only those organizations that make their work and finances transparent should be part of the network.

An attempt has to be made to bridge the wide gap between grassroots organizations, activists and people, the influential middle and upper classes in urban areas, and the political system. Each of these three, it seems, work largely in isolation and the gap has to be reduced.

 

Serious gaps exist in disclosure norms, in enforcing existing rules and regulations, and between various arms of society – particularly the people-oriented grassroots organizations, the influential members of the bureaucracy and civil society, and the political establishment. These three are likely to disagree on various issues, but at least the first two have a common need to come together for electoral reforms. Ultimately, it is people and their organizations – the not-for-profits – alone that have the greatest vested interest in reforms and they must take the lead.

 

TABLE 1

Election Watch: State-wise Summary

Sl. No.

Name of State

Constituencies

No. of Candidates

Candidates with pending criminal cases

Candidates with assets more than Rs 1 crore

Candidates with NIL assets

Candidates with liabilities more than Rs 5 lakh

Candidates with No PAN

   

Total

Covered

%

Total

Covered

%

No.

%*

No.

%*

No.

%*

No.

%*

No.

%*

1

Gujarat

26

26

100

162

162

100

26

16

13

8

11

6.7

18

11.1

86

53

2

Maharashtra

48

48

100

412

412

100

72

17.4

57

13.8

43

10.4

58

14

20

4.8

3

Karnataka

28

28

100

172

172

100

17

9.8

28

16.2

37

21.5

0

0

120

69.7

4

Kerala

20

20

100

177

177

100

25

14.1

9

5

10

5.6

1

0.5

124

70

5

Andhra Pradesh

42

42

100

279

79

28.3

4

5

0

0

0

0

2

2.5

-

-

6

Union Territories

6

6

100

67

41

61

7

17

6

14.6

0

0

2

4.8

22

53.6

7

Orissa

21

21

100

100

100

100

9

9

9

9

10

10

14

14

63

63

8.

Jharkhand

14

14

100

182

103

56.5

33

32

0

0

5

4.8

7

6.7

56

54.3

9

West Bengal

42

42

100

355

347

97.7

81

23.3

9

2.5

18

5.18

19

5.4

190

54.7

10

Mizoram

1

1

100

3

3

100

0

0

0

0

0

0

1

33.3

3

100

11

Manipur

2

1

50

12

5

41.6

0

0

0

0

-

-

0

0

4

80

12

Nagaland

1

1

100

5

5

100

0

0

2

40

0

0

0

0

5

100

13

Arunachal Pradesh

2

2

100

13

10

76.9

0

0

2

20

0

0

0

0

10

100

14

Assam

14

8

57

116

68

58.6

1

1.4

2

2.9

0

0

0

0

49

72

15

Bihar

40

40

100

462

462

100

93

20.1

31

6.7

28

6

34

7.3

-

-

16

Chhattisgarh

11

11

100

102

102

100

12

11.7

5

4.9

7

6.8

4

3.9

82

80.3

17

Madhya Pradesh

29

29

100

294

294

100

37

12.5

15

5.1

12

4

0

0

10

3.4

18

Uttar Pradesh

80

80

100

1138

362

31.8

71

19.6

83

22.9

6

1.6

54

14.9

196

54.1

19

Rajasthan

25

25

100

185

185

100

23

12.4

24

12.9

4

2.1

22

11.8

-

-

20

Delhi

7

7

100

129

100

77.5

7

7

9

9

2

2

9

9

65

65

 

Total

459

452

98

4365

3189

73

518

16

304

9.5

292

9.1

245

7.6

1105

34.6

                                   

States not included in the Election Watch

1.

Goa

2

-

-

16

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

2.

Haryana

10

-

-

160

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

 

-

-

-

3.

Himachal Pradesh

4

-

-

23

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

4.

Jammu Kashmir

6

-

-

83

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

5.

Meghalaya

2

-

-

5

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

6.

Punjab

13

-

-

142

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

7.

Sikkim

1

-

-

4

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

8.

Tamil Nadu

39

-

-

571

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

9.

Tripura

2

-

-

12

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

10.

Uttaranchal

5

-

-

54

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

 

Total

84

-

-

1070

                       
 

Grand Total

543

   

5435

                       

* Percentage calculated with ‘No. of Candidates Covered’ as the denominator.

 

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