Earlier this year, the Supreme Court made disclosure of candidates antecedents in elections mandatory. The ruling seeks to promote transparency in the electoral process and strengthen voter's Right to Information. Among other things, it is also a small but bold step to weed out criminal elements from elections.
Last month, K R Puram, a township on the eastern outskirts of Bangalore came under the scrutiny of election watchers and the media. K R Purams city municipal council was among the first to run into elections since the new disclosure guidelines were instituted by the Election Commission. The Election Commission had also made it known in no uncertain terms, its intent to implement disclosures nationwide. But a review of the elections process has found that neither letter nor spirit of the disclosure law had been followed. Procedures for mandatory disclosure stipulated by the State Election Commission were not properly adhered to either by candidates or Notaries or the Returning Officers.
The purpose of the Supreme Court directive was to let voters have access to the affidavits containing information on antecedents of candidates. The practice adopted by the authorities in K.R. Puram did not meet that goal, and is a wake-up call. If this followed in other states, the chances are that voters everywhere will not benefit from background information about the candidates. In K.R. Puram, the affidavits were displayed in the municipal office and the Taluk office. All the 170 affidavits of 35 wards were bunched together and put on the notice board, though voters are interested only in the candidates of their respective wards. There was no publicity on where the information would be available. The citizens "Right to Know" that the Supreme Court upheld is unlikely to be realized under these conditions.
A random check of candidates assets in a few wards confirms that in nine out of ten cases, assets have been heavily understated. While declaring their assets, the value of such assets has been given by only about two thirds of the candidates. This again is information that election officers should have insisted on from the candidates.
These lapses were highlighted in an investigation by the Public Affairs Centre (PAC), Bangalore which has reported them in detail to the Karnataka State Election Commissioner, along with suggestions on how to improve the compliance with the CEC guidelines. The Commissioner has agreed to take prompt action against the erring returning officers and the Notaries. As for the candidates non-compliance, the State Election Commissions advice is that voters and civic groups should take them to court.
Finally, a serious problem encountered on the ground is that there is little time between the submission of affidavits and the voting day that civic groups are hard pressed to verify the declarations and challenge false statements.
The Public Affairs Centre has proposed the following actions to be taken by the concerned authorities and civil society groups in every state:
- Election Commissions should intensify the training and supervision of the Returning Officers and other front line staff.
- Incomplete Affidavits should be rejected forthwith. Speedy actions should be taken against erring officers, including notaries who seal such affidavits.
- Declaration of the value of assets should be insisted upon. It will help voters to compare candidates if the total value of assets is also declared by them.
- Election Commissions should, through the press, radio and TV, inform voters of locations where the affidavits relevant to different wards/constituencies will be displayed. Multiple venues such as post offices, ward offices, polling booths and Panchayat offices should be used for this purpose.
- Wherever possible, the authorities should display the candidates' information on their websites. Speed of dissemination is important as the time period between the acceptance of candidates affidavits and elections is short.
- Civic groups/neighborhood associations, etc should mount campaigns to disseminate information on candidates and challenge cases of false and incomplete information.