Poll reforms

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The decision of the Supreme Court imposing an additional norm for candidates contesting elections for disclosure of the sources of their income, spouses and dependent has added to the growing body of judicially inspired electoral reforms in the country. The SC has directed the central government to amend rules as well as the disclosure form filed by the candidates along with their nomination papers to include the sources of their income besides other family members. This is a welcome step and goes with the aspirations of the electorate, who want to know the background and sources of the income of the candidates contesting any of the democratic elections. In fact, the SC direction that a permanent mechanism should be established to investigate any unexplained or disproportionate increase in the assets of the legislators during their tenure as elected representatives will have far reaching consequences so far as poll reforms are concerned. The decision of the Division Bench on a petition from the Non-Government Organisation, Lok Prahari, is one more in a long line of significant verdicts aimed at preserving the purity of the electoral process. These include the direction to provide the None of The Above (NOTA) option in voting machines, and another striking down a clause that protected the sitting legislators from immediate disqualification upon conviction in a criminal case. It has ruled that the act of voting is an expression of free speech, and that it is part of this fundamental right that voters are required to be informed of all relevant details about a contesting candidate. This led to the rule that candidates should furnish details of any criminal antecedents, educational qualifications and assets at the time filing of their nomination papers. If disclosure of assets is mandatory, it is only prudent and logical that the sources of income are also disclosed. And as it is often seen that there is a dramatic and enormous increase in the assets of candidates at every election over what was disclosed in previous affidavits, it stands to reason that any rise should be explained or probed by an established authority like Lokpal. The current dispensation, which rode on the wave of establishing such a mechanism in 2014 General Elections, has failed to fulfil its promise to allow a detailed probe into the assets of the contesting candidates and elected legislators. It is general public perception that lawmakers have been amassing wealth and property by having access to public funds and loans over the past seven decades and this problem needs to be addressed through a set new norms governing the public servants. Besides this, anybody holding any public office should be open to probe by an independent agency at any point of time in order to make the disclosure credible for the common masses. In order to provide teeth to its decision, the SC has made it clear that non-disclosure of assets and their sources would amount to a ‘corrupt practice’ under Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Unless questions are raised whether the court’s order to amend the relevant rules amounted to legislation, the Division Bench has said it sees no ‘legal or normative impediment’, as the central government is fully empowered by the Act to frame rules in consultation with the Election Commission. The idea behind a permanent mechanism to collect data about the assets of legislators and periodically examine them is laudable, but it is not clear which authority will run it. The highest court of the land has envisioned an authority that would make recommendations for prosecution or disqualification based on its own findings. The central government and the Election Commission will have to jointly address the issue. There is a clear message from the SC verdict is that a fully informed electorate and transparent candidature will be key components of future elections in India. It is also worth noting that the SC has refrained from addressing the issue of corporate funding of the political parties and the amount of donations made in a calendar year. There is also no mention of donations made by an individual in a calendar year to any political party. The electoral bonds allowed by the NDA-government last month are still mired in mysterious ways of collecting funds from the public as well as the corporate houses. These issues may come up next time whenever judicial activism comes into play due to failure of the executive to address these important issues in near future.