The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Kalam causes poll reform rethink ripple

New Delhi, Aug. 23: The fragile consensus over electoral reforms has suffered a jolt following President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s move to return an Ordinance, questioning its ability to curb criminalisation of politics.

The Trinamul Congress, the Left parties and former Prime Minister V.P. Singh hailed Kalam’s intervention. Trinamul leader Mamata Banerjee said the provisions of the Ordinance should be the “letter and spirit” of a Supreme Court directive on poll reforms.

The CPI today even questioned the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime’s move to bring an Ordinance when the poll process in Jammu and Kashmir was already underway. “Under these circumstances, the Bill (on electoral reforms) can be placed and discussed in the next session of Parliament,” the party said.

The CPM complimented the President for showing “independence of opinion”, while accusing the BJP of confronting all “constitutional institutions”.

Last month, the entire political class had got together to dilute stringent provisions suggested by the Election Commission and the apex court.

Although BJP leaders in private tried to underplay the return of the Ordinance as a “routine matter”, the Opposition viewed the development as the first sign of Kalam emerging as an “activist President”.

Kalam had returned the Ordinance on Wednesday seeking clarifications on two key points regarding a candidate’s criminal antecedents. Informed sources said he had raised the issue with Vajpayee on Tuesday. The Prime Minister had then asked the law ministry to work on it. Official sources said the law ministry’s response to the President’s queries would be placed before the Cabinet, which would decide whether to make changes in the Ordinance or send it back to the President “as it is”.

Rashtrapati Bhavan insiders said one of the questions the President raised was about the omission of an Election Commission guideline on seeking information from candidates about their conviction in any case.

They said Kalam also wanted to know why the government had dropped from its proposed Ordinance the earlier provision for disqualifying candidates if charges had been framed against them in two heinous offences, such as rape and murder.

Kalam reportedly scrutinised the Ordinance after a delegation from an NGO, the National Campaign for Electoral Reforms, called on him, saying the Ordinance would violate the fundamental right of citizens to know the antecedents of candidates before electing them.

Advocate Kamini Jaiswal, journalist Kuldip Nayar, Jamia Milia University vice-chancellor Shahid Mehndi and former Delhi High Court chief justice Rajinder Sachar said the Ordinance was unconstitutional.

It is a replica of the Representation of People’s Act Amendment Bill, which could not be placed before Parliament as the House was prorogued earlier than scheduled. The Union Cabinet on August 16 had approved and sent it for President’s approval.

The debate over electoral reforms came under focus after the Supreme Court directed the poll panel to ask candidates to furnish details of their assets, liabilities, educational qualifications and criminal antecedents, if any, so that voters could think before making a choice.

In yet another move, which may not be appreciated by the hardliners in the Sangh Parivar, the President advised the National Commission of Minorities to adopt a proactive role and promote communal harmony.

Kalam told the panel that instead of sitting in Delhi, the members should travel the length and width of the country and work towards inculcating secular feelings among the people.

The President said communal disturbances were neither good for the image of the country nor its development.

The three members of the commission — Tarlochan Singh, Mohammed Shamim and John Joseph had called on the President on Monday.

Complying with the apex court deadline, the poll commission on June 28 decided to implement the directives. But major political parties, namely the Congress, the BJP, the Samajwadi Party and the Left, expressed their reservations against such sweeping powers being given to the commission.

Congress spokesman Jaipal Reddy said his party was committed to the cause of electoral reforms, but was against the idea of a returning officer being empowered to reject nomination papers of “tainted candidates”.

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