I n a sensational verdict, the Supreme Court recently quashed section 33-B of the Representation of Peoples Act to ensure fair and meaningful elections in the country. The bench practically restored an earlier apex court order that made it mandatory for candidates to give detailed information about their assets, liabilities, educational qualifications and criminal records, if any, when filing their nomination-papers. The court also directed the Election Commission to introduce these clauses in the electoral rules.
But instead of accepting such reform measures, political parties sought ways to evade them. An all-party meet promptly amended the Representation of Peoples Act by which only candidates who won were required to declare their assets to the speaker of the Lok Sabha or the legislative assembly and chairman of the Rajya Sabha or council of the province. No criminal record, if any, was required to be disclosed during the filing of nomination-papers. Thus people were deprived of their right to know the moral background of their representatives.
The Supreme Court recommendations should not have affected the interests of candidates. It wanted them to disclose: one, whether he or she has been convicted/acquitted/discharged of any criminal offence in the past or whether he/she had been punished with imprisonment or fine for the same; two, whether he/she has been, prior to six months of filing the nomination, accused in any pending case or any of such offences punishable with imprisonment for two years or more; three, the total assets of a candidate and of his/her spouse; four, all liabilities, particularly, the nature of any dues of any public financial institutions or other organizations; and five, the educational qualifications of the candidate.
In an indirect democracy, governance depends solely upon the quality of the representatives, and, hence it is essential that people are able to choose the right people. But if this crucial matter is shrouded in mystery, then governance becomes a misnomer. The judges thus have quite rightly declared the act ultra vires because it infringed upon a statutory provision of the Constitution. In their view, the right to vote as granted by Article 326 is organically related to Article 19(1)(a), which is a fundamental right guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression. Thus interpreted, the right to vote would be meaningless unless the citizens are well-informed about the antecedents of a candidate.
The Constitution declares by Article 13(2) that a law which goes against any of the fundamental right is ultra vires and void. So there can be no reason to lament over the act. But there is another point to brood over. Politics in India has already been criminalized. So steps have to be taken so that law-breakers do not become law-makers. In this not only does the moral character of the candidate become important, but also his financial position. Which means candidates have to declare all assets, even those in the name of their children and spouses.
The education of the candidate is of equal important. If the legislature comes to harbour fools, it would damage the interests and wellbeing of the people. Aristotle pointed out long ago that selfish and half-educated demagogues have destroyed the fabric of countries again and again.
Unlike other constitutions, the Indian Constitution has inserted a completely separate chapter on elections. It also has, under Article 324, provided for an Election Commission to ensure a free and fair polls. But although our Constitution-makers had been anxious to establish a foolproof system, the electoral mechanism has since been corrupted. T.N. Seshan, former chief election commissioner, did his best to stem the rot, but his retirement put an end to the reform process. Now the apex court remains the only agency which can cleanse electoral politics. Let us hope Parliament heeds the courts verdict this time.