Murderers’ mix-up kills Congmen
‘Hotel’ succour for undertrials
Advani boost with eye on elections
Thakur out, Maneka told to follow
Mamata and Atal drive hard bargain
Najma ready for VP contest
UP bleeds in sterilisation rush
George forum fan from Mexico
Centre locks horns with EC on come-clean order
Probing poll panel nettles politicians

 
 
MURDERERS’ MIX-UP KILLS CONGMEN 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Kandi (Murshidabad), June 30: 
Two Congress supporters were killed this morning in an alleged case of mistaken identity by unknown assailants at Monigram under Kandi police station.

The incident took place when the two men — Ajbul Sheikh and Kabil Sheikh — were resting in a hut while on their way home after attending a wedding last night. The Jashohari-Anokha gram panchayat member, Sanwar Sheikh of the Congress, meets villagers here every day.

Superintendent of police Virendra said two persons have been arrested. “The interrogation of the duo will lead us to the culprits,” he added.

The police have carried out search operations in and around the village to trace the other members of the gang involved in the murder.

District police officials are also camping in the village to prevent any untoward incident.

CPM activists were allegedly planning to murder Sanwar Sheikh for some time. This morning, Sanwar had not turned up to meet the villagers when the two Congress activists had arrived. Some alleged CPM workers, probably mistaking one of the Congress members for Sanwar, hurled bombs at them.

The wounded activists were taken to Kandi Hospital where doctors declared them dead.

This is the second murder in Monigram in the past one month — Kasem Sheikh was murdered at the same spot the first time.

“The CPM is eliminating our supporters because the party is fast losing ground in Murshidabad and is worried about next year’s panchayat polls,” said the district Congress president and party MP, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.

The CPM has denied the allegation.

BJP to go it alone

The state BJP has ruled out any tie-up with the Trinamul Congress for panchayat polls slated to be held next year, reports our Malda correspondent.

Addressing the party’s two-day executive committee meeting here, state BJP president Asim Ghosh said the party would contest the elections alone.

The convention is being attended by more than 150 delegates, including Union telecom minister Tapan Sikdar. “We have assembled here to decide our course of action for next year’s polls,” said the party chief.

   

 
 
‘HOTEL’ SUCCOUR FOR UNDERTRIALS 
 
 
BY ALAMGIR HUSSAIN
 
Behrampore, June 30: 
Where would you find 1 kg of mutton for Rs 40 or fish at Rs 10? Or where would one get lunch and dinner for Rs 20?

At a time when a kilo of mutton costs nothing less than Rs 130, Behrampore Central Jail has done the unthinkable by keeping the cost of food items to the level it was at least three decades ago.

Inside the high walls of Murshidabad’s largest prison, both undertrials and convicts have arranged “markets” and “hotels” where the low prices of raw and cooked items can appear incredulous.

The “mates” or, in official parlance, convicted overseers of all the 14 wards for undertrials run the “hotels” in the prison. They purchase from “markets” run by the jail staff in charge of the prison kitchen and the hospital. The food items the staff sells are those received from the government.

On an average, the Behrampore Central Jail has 1,000 prisoners at any given time with roughly equal number of convicts and undertrials.

Most of these 1,000 prisoners eat at the “hotels” run by the mates as the food they get from the prison is not filling enough.

“A few spoons of water-like pulses and rice neither fills us nor appeal to the taste-buds,” a prisoner, on condition of anonymity, explained why most of them lined up for the illegally-run hotels despite the money they had to cough up.

Officials admit that the “hotels” and the “markets” as well as the monetary transaction in the prison are illegal.

“No money should be with the prisoners,” a senior official said. He, however, admitted that it was an “open secret” that the families of prisoners gave the jail staff a “consideration” to pass on the money.

A corner of the ward — there are 14 such wards for undertrials while the convicts stay in separate cells — usually serves as the kitchen with the raw foodstuff being kept there every morning. The cooking is done on a kerosene stove.

Behrampore Central Jail superintendent Dulal Chandra Saha denied any knowledge about the “hotels” and the “markets”. “The prison is a massive structure and the prisoners may, at some time, prepare tea for themselves,” he said, adding that these could not be called hotels.

   

 
 
ADVANI BOOST WITH EYE ON ELECTIONS 
 
 
BY MAHESH RANGARAJAN
 
June 30: 
The appointment of L.K. Advani as deputy Prime Minister anoints him as successor to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It also marks a new level of assertiveness of the BJP over its allies in preparation for the electoral challenges ahead.

The timing is of essence. Eleven Assembly elections are due by the end of 2003. Most are in saffron strongholds, and the party wants to be free to fight on its own plank. The general election is just 28 months away. The party is also aware that Vajpayee has now been in power since early 1998: without a major change in line-up, the regime will continue to have a tired air about it.

The home minister has a crucial role to play in this process. Having led the party back from near oblivion, Advani stood aside as Vajpayee was a figure more acceptable to potential allies. There was then a toning down of saffron.

The reverse is now the case. Not since Sardar Patel has any individual combined the office of the home minister with the post of deputy Prime Minister. Patel and Nehru, despite having been fellow Congressmen for decades, had frayed relations in the last years. Nehru’s biographer, the late S. Gopal, speaks of “extreme irritation over trivial matters” in months prior to the demise of the Iron Man in January 1951.

It is here that the similarities with the Nehru-Patel relationship end. The two men at the top today have been close associates for decades. They have steered the party since the demise of their mentor Deen Dayal Upadhyay 34 years ago.

A ‘you first’ equation has often marked their public dealings. In its Mumbai conclave in 1995, Advani proposed that his senior colleague be candidate for Prime Minister. Though he stayed out of government in 1996, as he was then chargesheeted in the Jain hawala case, Advani made a comeback after acquittal.

He still deferred to Vajpayee and will not cease to do so after his elevation this weekend. The mid-nineties blip in the phenomenal rise of the party showed that the Prime Minister was its only public icon, its most acceptable and popular face. That remains so to this day.

But there is a restiveness arising from the steady erosion of the base of the movement. The loss of Uttar Pradesh and the resounding defeat in the Delhi municipal polls deepened fears of an irreversible decline of support. The shake-up in party and government are meant to restore the fortunes of both.

There is an interesting sidelight to the story. Deputy prime ministers have often been at loggerheads with their chiefs. Indira Gandhi forced Morarji Desai out of office. Since then, no Congress ministry has made space for a second-in-command.

The Janata party in 1977 initially resisted the idea and then gave way. Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram were elevated to deputy prime ministership mid-stream by the Janata party government in 1978. The following year, Charan Singh helped topple the ministry and forge a shortlived regime.

The lesson then was clear enough. In a coalition, the second slot may well turn out to be a corrosive force, a challenge to the position and authority of the Prime Minister. The same sad story was repeated by Devi Lal who as the deputy, played a key role in the ouster of the V.P. Singh government in 1990.

Given this troubled history, the revival of the post is a significant step. The idea is obviously to smoothen the eventual transition to a post-Vajpayee era. It is not a challenge to his standing but a bid to win support from the allies for a future Advani candidacy when and if it becomes necessary.

Advani may lead the NDA into the next general elections if the alliance holds together. Should the party return to the splendid isolation of the early nineties, the man who made the Mandir a household word will be best placed to take it forward.

Only time will tell whether this will strengthen the Prime Minister’s hands or end up creating a second centre of power. The Prime Minister remains the first among equals. But there is now one more minister who is more than just an equal.

   

 
 
THAKUR OUT, MANEKA TOLD TO FOLLOW 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, June 30: 
Union health minister C.P. Thakur has put in his papers ahead of Monday’s shuffle and expansion.

Thakur, who was expected to be dropped after his running spat with animal welfare minister Maneka Gandhi on the use of animals for medical and pharmaceutical research, resigned this evening on deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani’s directive.

The ostensible provocation for his sudden resignation was the violent manner in which his supporters protested at the BJP headquarters in Patna. Although Thakur condemned the incident, his bosses took a grim view of it.

Government sources said Maneka, too, has been told to resign. She fell foul of the BJP after the Uttar Pradesh elections where she allegedly went out of her way to defeat the party candidates in her Pilibhit constituency.

Thakur, however, maintained that he would not leave the BJP and would do whatever he was asked to by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Also to hand in their resignations were rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu and law minister Arun Jaitley. Both will be drafted for party work— Naidu as BJP president and Jaitley as a general secretary-cum-chief spokesman.

Ministers of state Dhananjay Kumar and Munilal have also resigned.

Naidu is expected to formally take over as party president tomorrow. The incumbent chief, K. Jana Krishnamurthi, will hand his resignation to the senior-most vice-president, Kailashpati Mishra, at a central office-bearers’ meeting that will precede Naidu’s takeover.

Both Vajpayee and Advani will be at the BJP headquarters to “bless” Naidu before he takes up his new assignment.

A fresh round of meetings was held at the Prime Minister’s house today. The core group of ministers, which included Advani, external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan and defence minister George Fernandes took part in the talks. The “swap formula” involving an exchange of portfolios between the external affairs minister and finance minister Yashwant Sinha is in place.

As finance minister, Singh will also look after company affairs which is now part of the law ministry, but he could not get the disinvestment ministry he was keen on.

A proposal to bifurcate information and broadcasting ministry — which envisaged integrating broadcasting with infotech and communications and keeping information separate — was eventually put aside because of the procedural complications.

Although the shuffle was billed as a major effort to spruce up the image of the BJP as well as the government. it seemed as though barring Advani’s redesignation and the expected change in Singh and Sinha’s portfolios, the exercise would not yield anything dramatic.

Apart from Naidu and Jaitley, no other minister seemed slated to go over to the party. Urban development minister Ananth Kumar, who till yesterday was tipped to follow Jaitley as a general secretary, would continue with the government, thanks to a last-minute intervention by Mahajan and Naidu.

These leaders reportedly said it would not send the “right” signal to drop two senior ministers from the south (Kumar is from Karnataka). A second government-party shuffle could take place closer to next year’s Assembly elections.

   

 
 
MAMATA AND ATAL DRIVE HARD BARGAIN 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, June 30: 
A sulking Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee continued to keep Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the edge with her refusal to accept a ministry other than railways.

A 45-minute meeting with the Prime Minister after her arrival here from Calcutta this morning failed to clinch the issue with Vajpayee firmly rejecting her demand.

Late in the evening, another round of meeting was held in the Prime Minister’s residence to discuss Mamata’s demand, but there was no official word on whether a way out of the impasse had been found.

Though PMO sources claimed that the Trinamul chief has indicated she would consider some other portfolios, there was no confirmation from the Mamata camp either. She was huddled with her party MPs late into the night discussing various options.

Sources said she was offered a few choices other than railways such as labour, civil aviation, coal and mines, health and family welfare, rural development and shipping and surface transport.

Government sources said the Trinamul chief is under tremendous pressure from a section of party MPs not to insist on railways and jeopardise her position.

The Prime Minister is understood to have offered a Cabinet and a minister of state berth for the Trinamul Congress, while Mamata insisted on a Cabinet and two minister of state posts.

The Prime Minister, sources said, also advised Mamata not to object to the induction of Ajit Panja into the council of ministers with independent charge. Panja, who was expelled from the Trinamul by Mamata last year for “anti-party activities”, has stood by the BJP all through.

Party sources said the decision about the portfolio would be communicated to the PMO by tomorrow morning. Vajpayee is expecting that Mamata will make her stand clear by 12 noon, when the Prime Minister will have, perhaps, the last round of discussions on the reshuffle. The swearing-in for the new ministers has been fixed at 6 pm.

The Vajpayee government is still insisting that Mamata and Panja reunite.

Mamata stuck to her demand for the railway portfolio till this evening. The BJP leadership, especially the lobby led by L.K. Advani, is not inclined to “pamper” Mamata this time. They feel that if she does not accept a Cabinet berth, her party may split with several Trinamul MPs wanting to become ministers.

The BJP leadership is exploring whether it could get Mamata to modifying her position and allow one of her MPs to become junior railways minister after accepting one of the available high-profile ministries for herself.

However, a section of the Trinamul is opposed to the idea because all the MPs want to become ministers. Against this background, the party may split if Mamata is forced by circumstances to pick one or two of them to become junior ministers in the railways or other ministries.

NDA convener George Fernandes is scheduled to meet Mamata tomorrow to hold talks.

Four of the nine Lok Sabha MPs, excluding Ajit Panja, did not turn up for the meeting. Party sources, however, said Krishna Bose, Bikram Sarkar, Ranjit Panja and Anand Mohan Biswas were out of Delhi.

Mamata was not forthcoming on her talks with the Prime Minister. She claimed that there was no discussion on portfolio allocation with Vajpayee.

“There was no discussion on portfolio during my meeting with the Prime Minister today. He had called me for talks. I respect the Prime Minister. There was definitely talk on political things,” Mamata said.

She parried questions on whether the issue of giving two ministerial berths for the Trinamul was taken up during her talks, saying “does everything end in one meeting? In politics, talks goes on”.

   

 
 
NAJMA READY FOR VP CONTEST 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, June 30: 
Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson Najma Heptullah is prepared to take on the NDA nominee for the vice-presidential polls.

Heptullah has conveyed her intentions to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who has been on the lookout for a suitable candidate to take on the NDA nominee. In the electoral college that comprises both Houses of Parliament, the NDA along with the Telugu Desam Party enjoys a decisive majority.

However, Heptullah is keen to contest on two counts. First, she is confident that her candidature would cause discomfort within the NDA and might help fetch some extra votes. Najma has been a deputy presiding officer in the Rajya Sabha for about a decade, winning support from various quarters.

The second factor prompting Najma to jump into the fray has to do with intra-party affairs in the Congress.

Her “sacrifice” to take on an NDA candidate is aimed at bridging differences with the party leadership. There have been reports that all is not well between Najma and 10 Janpath. Her supporters said she would earn “goodwill” even if she lost to the official government nominee.

This “goodwill” will come in handy in 2004 when Najma’s term in Rajya Sabha comes to an end for the fourth consecutive time. There is no precedence in the Congress of giving a leader more than four terms (24 years) in the Upper House without a break.

For Najma, her continuation as a Rajya Sabha member is crucial for retaining the high-profile post of chairperson of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The IPU stint might open doors for more prestigious assignments at the international level such as the United Nations.

But a section in the Congress is undecided about her future. They said the party high command had not taken kindly to Najma’s presence at L.K. Advani’s book release ceremony to mark 27 years of Emergency.

The book release function, presided over by NDA convener George Fernandes, turned out to be a Congress and Indira-bashing exercise in disguise. Congress leaders wonder why Najma chose to attend such a “politically incorrect” ceremony when she had so much at stake.

The Congress leadership is divided over the issue of fielding Najma. One section feels her presence would not help as the Congress had already assured its support to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a Muslim nominee for the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

“If the idea is to win, then we cannot project two persons from the same community for high constitutional posts,” said a Congress MP from Maharashtra while acknowledging that there was no legal barrier on doing so.

Senior leaders, including Pranab Mukherjee and Jaipal Reddy, feel the Congress should try to persuade Krishna Kant to contest. If Kant succeeds in getting support from Desam leader N. Chandrababu Naidu, the contest will become close, they argued.

Kant, however, continues to chant the consensus mantra even though there are not many takers for it in the NDA.

   

 
 
UP BLEEDS IN STERILISATION RUSH 
 
 
FROM MONOBINA GUPTA
 
New Delhi, June 30: 
“Women had gathered in large numbers early morning. They came on an empty stomach to the sterilisation camp. However, registration began only after 12 noon. The same needle was used for blood tests. All women were thrown together in the same room — some were forced to lie down on the floor and were turned out of the room immediately after the operation was over. They were still under the effect of anaesthesia.”

An eyewitness account of a sterilisation camp at Manikpur in Uttar Pradesh severely indicts the state government’s frenetic rush to meet sterilisation targets even when the national policy on population has categorically rejected such a coercive approach to population control.

The account goes on to state: “Operations took place in darkness — sometimes in candlelight. All sterilisation operations were performed on women — not a single man was sighted. Later, many women complained the stitches had gone septic.”

Repeated statements by the health and family welfare ministry and the National Population Commission against incentives or disincentives and, most importantly, against any form of coercion to stabilise population have had no impact on the Uttar Pradesh government.

At a meeting on reproductive health and women’s rights in the capital earlier this week, Dinesh Singh, convener of Chaupaal, a non-government organisation based in Uttar Pradesh, revealed a stark picture of the state’s family planning programme.

“The population policy of (the) UP government is a target-oriented policy, which disregards all international and national commitments made by the Government of India,” stated a report by Health Watch, another non-government organisation.

The report underlined scores of cases of coercion and negligence. “We came across a case where a 15-year-old was passed off as a 23-year-old and a mother of three children. She was forcibly sterilised,” said the report.

Unfazed by the criticism, the state government drew up a population control Bill that debarred parents with more than two children from government jobs, refused them permission to contest panchayat polls, withheld increments. It even talked about termination of service if employees had more than two offspring.

“The Bill triggered a furore and it was only after sustained pressure and resistance from non-governmental groups that the legislation has been kept on hold,” said Ramakant Rai of Health Watch.

The Uttar Pradesh experience shows that the Centre has not been able to rein in state governments determined to turn the national population stabilisation policy on its head.

It is highlighted at a time when there is speculation about the Centre reverting to a two-child norm — target-oriented population stabilisation policy — even though the health and family welfare ministry and the National Population Commission deny it.

The NGOs working in Uttar Pradesh have underlined the pathetic state of the public healthcare system. According to reliable sources, only 3.2 per cent of women have been paid a visit by a health worker in the last 12 months.

Barely 4.4 per cent of pregnant women receive complete antenatal check-up. Nearly 35,000 women die every year from maternity-related causes and around 15,000 women have to bear a pregnancy because of sterilisation failure.

“Before getting operated, the women have to sign a ‘disclaimer’ form saying they will not take any action against the government if anything went wrong with the surgery,” said Ramakant Rai.

“This means even if the woman dies because of sterilisation, her family can do nothing.”

   

 
 
GEORGE FORUM FAN FROM MEXICO 
 
 
FROM KAY BENEDICT
 
New Delhi, June 30: 
There may not be too many takers for George Fernandes’ love for all things swadeshi. The man who banished IBM and Coke from Indian soil in his earlier avatar as industry minister in the Morarji Desai Cabinet, has now become a silent supporter of disinvestment and privatisation, much to the consternation of his socialist constituency.

The crumpled kurta-pyjama-sporting leader has now decided to re-embrace his swadeshi moorings through a platform called Lok Manch. The main thrust of the Manch is to take up issues such as generation of employment, boosting small-scale and agro industries.

The Manch, of which Fernandes is the patron, will be launched on July 4 and the focus will be a report by Planning Commission member S.P. Gupta on how to generate one million jobs.

While friends and foes of Fernandes are not taking him seriously, distant Mexico has evinced interest in the report. Julio Faesler Carlisle, ambassador of Mexico to India, will be one of the speakers at the Lok Manch launch billed as the “National Conference on Employment Generation.”

The Mexican ambassador was so impressed with the report that he wrote an article for a major Mexican daily and suggested that his government should collaborate with India in implementing some of the suggestions on the small-scale sector and employment generation.

If Mexico and India enter into collaboration, Indian products could also access markets in Canada, and US since Mexico, US and Canada are all part of a North American trade bloc.

Manch leaders do not see this as yet another instance of Fernandes’ international connections. Fernandes’ Samata Party was the only Indian party to send a delegation to Yugoslavia two years ago to monitor elections. The team was led by Samata MP Brahmanda Mandal, who has first-hand experience in Bihar, notorious for booth capturing and rigging.

Manch convener Shambu Shrivastwa said, besides Fernandes, Carlisle and S.P. Gupta, the launch will feature a host of other speakers, including former Manipur chief minister R.B. Koijam, Michael Fernandes, noted trade unionist, former Samata president Jaya Jaitly and KVIC chairman Mahesh Sharma.

He said similar conferences would be organised in 12 states to create awareness among the people. According to the Lok Manch concept of swadeshi, production techniques have to be modernised and government help solicited for small producers and entrepreneurs so that they could compete with multinationals.

The Manch is launching a massive agitation programme in Bihar in October-November against the politics of violence, backwardness and unemployment.

Shrivastwa denied that the real motive behind the Lok Manch was with an eye on Bihar politics. He said the situation in Bihar was very grim and the state capital of Patna was becoming one the most criminal-infested cities in the country.

“Saving Bihar is saving India,” he said, adding that unemployment was the root cause of extremism.

   

 
 
CENTRE LOCKS HORNS WITH EC ON COME-CLEAN ORDER 
 
 
FROM R. VENKATARAMAN
 
New Delhi, June 30: 
A war of words has broken out between the Election Commission and the Centre following the Supreme Court directive that necessary steps be taken to publicise educational, wealth and criminal, if any, backgrounds of candidates contesting elections.

Although the poll panel has issued orders regarding this, legal circles say the directive will not be valid till the Nomination Filing Rules are amended which Parliament alone is empowered to do.

According to the Constitution, Parliament alone can enact, amend and/or repeal laws and Bills. Even an Ordinance has to be ratified by Parliament to be passed as law.

Last month, the apex court had upheld a Delhi High Court directive, which made it mandatory for all candidates to publicise their background at the time of filing nomination papers. The high court order came on a public interest litigation filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. The apex court set July 1 as the deadline for the necessary changes to be effected.

But last week, law minister Arun Jaitley wrote to all parties and their leaders informing them of an all-party meeting on July 8 to evolve a consensus.

At this point, the Election Commission butted in to suggest that the changes mandated by the apex court be effected and added that if the government thought the deadline was too near it should appeal to the Supreme Court for more time. However, according to legal circles, this was shot down by the law ministry, which told the poll panel that if it wanted it could approach the apex court.

The Election Commission then pointed out that it was the Union government which was a party to the case – the PIL filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. So, in the fitness of things, the Centre should appeal to the apex court.

After Jaitley made it clear that a consensus was necessary because of the sensitivity of the matter, the Election Commission yesterday issued directives making it mandatory for candidates to declare “pending (criminal) cases, if any, educational qualification and wealth status”.

“This would not now stand in any court of law as the law has to be amended for the purpose,” legal sources said. They pointed out that the commission’s “unilateral” decision announcing the changes as per the directive of the apex court has “shocked” the government.

On its part, the commission says the court had made it clear that under Article 324 of the Constitution, the poll body has wide powers, including “superintendence” of elections which “include all aspects of conduct of elections” and that the commission could itself act.

Commission sources pointed out that all its executive orders relating to conduct of elections since August 1996 had survived so far and the clause whether a candidate was convicted in a criminal case or any chargesheet was pending against a candidate at the time of filing of nominations already existed.

“What have been added are the candidates’ educational qualifications, assets and liabilities, whether they owe anything to financial institutions and shares if any,” the sources said. “These were added after the decision of the apex court .”

To back their argument, they cited the case of Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, whose nomination was rejected during the Assembly elections last year because of her conviction in the Tansi land deal case. It was only after she was acquitted by Madras High Court that the ADMK chief was allowed to contest the Andipatti bypoll.

Law ministry sources, however, say that the apex court’s directives to be enforced require amendments to the Representation of Peoples Act which Parliament alone can do and not an executive body like the Election Commission. “Hence a political consensus is being sought to be achieved with an all-party meeting,” they added.

Whether the proposed meeting scuttles the poll panel’s directives will be known only after July 8. Till then, this war of attrition, reminiscent of T.N. Seshan’s days at Nirvachan Sadan, would go on.

   

 
 
PROBING POLL PANEL NETTLES POLITICIANS 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, June 30: 
The Election Commission’s move to arm itself with sweeping powers to reject candidates who fail to give account of their criminal, financial and educational records has not gone down well with politicians.

Leaders cutting across party lines feel that the commission should have waited for a consensus among political parties instead of going ahead with empowering its returning officers to reject the nominations of those failing to give details at the time of scrutiny of papers.

The leaders said a complex issue like electoral reforms could not be settled through an executive order without discussion and consensus. “We are all committed to electoral reforms but there is a need for a holistic view keeping in mind several complex moral, philosophical, ethical and legal aspects,” a former Union law minister said.

Leaders of the Congress, the BJP, the Left and the Samata Party said they had serious reservations on practical grounds. CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechuri wondered how the poll panel would judge if a candidate was a criminal or not. “Mere filing of charges or a complaint does not make a person a criminal. The law says a person is deemed to be innocent unless proved otherwise,” Yechuri said, adding that the party was also opposed to the idea of focusing on education qualifications.

Samata spokesman Shambhu Srivastwa said there were “practical aspects” that should be looked into. He added that the number of election-related litigation would go up phenomenally. “These provisions have far-reaching implications. There is a need for a careful examination of the seemingly good ideas.”

The Congress and the BJP said they would formally react after party deliberations. But privately, many leaders from both parties have raised eyebrows, saying it would open a can of worms.

A former Congress Union minister said the panel should make such data confidential because it could be used against a candidate during the polls. He added that his experience showed that there were many “false cases” against political activists. “Why should they suffer on account of false charges?” he asked.

There were similar views from the BJP. Party spokesman Vijay Kumar Malhotra said the commission should consider bringing about a change in the model code of conduct. “Why not give legal cover to the model code of conduct?” he asked.

Congress leaders said the election panel should also bear in mind the Supreme Court’s judgment, declining to give the commission a similar power to disqualify a candidate who failed to give the required information.

   
 

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