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Poll officers’ hands tied on false facts

New Delhi, March 16: The Supreme Court has ruled on the need for a candidate to disclose his criminal record and wealth while filing nomination papers, but it doesn’t help a returning officer reject the candidate’s nomination if he is suspected of giving false or wrong information.

Realising the practical difficulties involved, the apex court said in its March 13 judgment that the officer would find it hard to “consider the truth or otherwise” of documentary proof furnished by a candidate.

The three-judge bench of Justices M.B. Shah, P. Venkatarama Reddi and D.M. Dharmadhikari said the “direction to reject the nomination paper for allegedly furnishing wrong information or concealing relevant material information and providing for a summary inquiry at the time of scrutiny of nominations cannot be justified”.

According to the bench, it would be difficult for a candidate to rebut the allegations against him within a short time, especially when scrutiny of nomination takes place in a day or two.

“In the case of assets and liabilities, it would be very difficult for the returning officer to consider the truth or otherwise of the details furnished with reference to the ‘documentary proof’ and very often, in such matters, the documentary proof may not be clinching and the candidate concerned may be handicapped to rebut the allegations then and there,” the bench said.

So the bench could only restore its May 2, 2002, judgment mandating candidates to submit details of criminal cases, if any, pending against them and declare their total assets and liabilities, including those of spouses and other dependents such as children.

The bench, however, could not clearly answer the tricky issue of the returning officer rejecting the nomination. It simply directed the Election Commission to revise its instruction in the light of the judgments of May 2, 2002, and March 13.

Earlier, the commission had directed its returning officers to reject a nomination paper if a candidate gave false or wrong information.

But the apex court found it “prima facie” unsustainable as the candidate concerned could not be given sufficient time to rebut the allegation.

The apex court said on March 13 that “fundamental right is an empty vessel and each generation pours in it according to its needs in changed circumstances”. So in a democracy, cleansing processes such as declaration of wealth and criminal record were continuous, with each generation “filling up that empty vessel” according to its needs and experiences.

As a result, by the apex court’s own admission, its judgment of March 13 was not full and final, but only a step further in cleansing the democratic electoral system.

Writing the main judgment, Justice Shah said if sufficient time was provided, the candidate concerned could produce proof to contradict objections, if any, of a returning officer or any dispute relating to “documentary proof”.

The bench said candidates needed to disclose their criminal record and wealth while filing nomination because it was the “right of a voter to know all the details of a candidate (which) is the foundation of democracy”.

Justice Shah, drawing an analogy, said: “There was an era when a powerful or a rich or a strong or a dacoit aged more than 60 years married a beautiful young girl despite her resistance. Except to weep, she had no choice (in) selecting her mate.”

“To a large extent, such situation does not prevail today. Now, young persons are selecting mates of their choice after verifying full details thereof. Should we not have such a situation in selecting a candidate contesting elections'” he said.

“In a vibrant democracy, is it not required that a voter should know the bio-data of his/her would-be rulers, lawmakers or destiny-makers of the nation'”

A foolproof system to verify a candidate’s personal details, however, may take more time to put in place. For now, the apex court judgment has failed to shed light on the “grey area”.

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