It is a peculiar case of how secrecy and protection of the right to privacy of the income tax returns of Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) can override larger public interest.
At a hearing conducted by the Chief Information Commission on April 17 this year over a matter of denial of information regarding IT returns of 20 MPs under the Right To Information Act (RTI), representatives of parliamentarians simply could not fathom how declaration of assets and other details constituted public interest!
In fact, when the three-member bench hearing the case after three years of filing the application referred to a Supreme Court judgment which made declarations of assets and other details mandatory at the time of contesting elections, representatives of the MPs asked the bench how the political class could be singularly targeted in this manner.
Among the arguments put forth by them, Ajit Singh’s senior advocate argued that if the MPs are considered public servants, IT returns of every public servant should be requested for. Lawyers of Jyotiraditya Scindia argued that any tax payer serves larger public interest by paying tax, and hence, their personal information cannot be made available in the public domain. He also pointed out that the MPs whose IT returns have been sought, are not only elected representatives but pursue their self interests where income from other sources would get reflected in their IT returns.
Now consider the following. A total of 98 candidates with corruption cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act have been given tickets by various political parties during elections in the last five years. These include the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and all state assembly elections since 2008. The Congress has given tickets to 24 such candidates, BSP to 9, AIADMK to 7, SAD to 6, DMK and BJP to 5 and the INLD and RJD to 4 such candidates. Of these 98 candidates, 36 have won elections.
Of the 4,835 sitting MPs and MLAs whose affidavits were analysed, 1,448 have declared criminal cases against them, while 641 face serious criminal charges including, rape, murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, robbery and extortion.
These figures pointed out by Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR) do not augur well. The Law Commission headed by Justice Jeevan Reddy and the Working Committee to Review the Constitution headed by former Chief Justice M N Venkatachaliah, have also addressed this issue and felt the need for a bill to strengthen the political and electoral system of the country.
The bill, titled The Political Parties (Registration and Regulation of Affairs, etc) Draft Bill, was drafted by a committee led by Venkatachaliah and included advocate Sudhish Pai, former Karnataka Law secretary Kuriya Chamayya, journalist Arakere Jayaram, former minister B Somashekara and Trilochan Shastry, the founder member of ADR.
Speaking to Governance Watch, Shastry says there are two things that stand out distinctly on the need for such a bill. “One is the need for inner party democracy. This includes a democratic process for electing and selecting party office bearers and the candidates for election. The second is transparency and accountability in the funding of political parties and elections,” he says. Though several laws regulate the functioning of nearly all forms of organised activity in this country, there is not one such comprehensive law for political parties.
The bill that is being debated upon currently proposes that no candidate be declared elected unless he/she has secured 50 per cent plus 1 out of the total votes polled. Other suggested amendments include the option of negative voting where a vote is recorded by placing ‘none of the above’ as an option, disqualification of a candidate from contesting elections for 10 years if chargesheeted for five years, closer scrutiny, an upper limit and a more transparent election expenditure mechanism.
Points out RTI specialist and NGO worker Aruna Roy, “The problem today is that representative politics does nor represent the people. This is why peoples’ politics has become so important,” adding, “since there is no representation, there is a big question mark on politics. Who do they represent if they don’t represent the people who they are meant to represent?” It will be interesting to see if the civil society is able to fill this void.
Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) V S Sampath, however, favours a comprehensive law that covers the functioning of political parties and believes that civil society can play a crucial role towards ensuring political accountability.
He says that the vulnerability of voters is a matter of concern and exists on many counts. “During the last elections in Rajasthan, we evolved vulnerability mapping in view of the threat and intimidation faced by vulnerable sections, including minorities. The nature of vulnerability of the voters needs to be identified, so does the intimidating capacity of the candidate or other local bigwigs - all these are crucial for free and fair elections.’’ (See Interview)
The EC is also monitoring the election expenditure incurred by candidates. Affidavits filed by the candidate are now to be disseminated as quickly as possible. The CEC has issued instructions to ensure that affidavits are hosted on the EC website within 24 hours of the filing. In addition, contribution statements made by political parties in excess of Rs. 20,000 are also to be submitted in complete and verifiable form. Directives have also been issued to political parties to give this information in precise details. “We have also made a proposal to the Law Ministry for making changes in Form 24A in which contribution statements are made. It will help in assuring greater transparency,’’ Sampath told this magazine.
Expenditure statements filed by candidates will also be hosted on the web site within 48 hours to give more time for election petitions regarding false filing of details of expenditure etc. Time to buckle up.
'Use of money power a cause of concern'
Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath
What are the ills affecting the electoral process of our country?
VS: There is a cliche of the 3 Ms or ills affecting our election system. Muscle power, misuse of official power and money power. By and large, we have been able to take care of muscle power, though intimidation is still faced by minorities and vulnerable sections in many areas. While booth capturing and vulgar display of muscle power have by and large been contained, money power, continues to pose a threat.
There are cases where money power has been misused.
VS: If there are any areas where implementation can be toned up, we have an open mind. We have created a new division in the EC for monitoring expenditure and have revised the practice of deploying expenditure observers on a large scale. During elections, you will see that just like general observers, a number of expenditure observers will also be criss-crossing at the time of elections.
How is the EC coordinating with different economic agencies to monitor expenses incurred during elections?
VS: Now, more than ever, we have much greater understanding with the CBDT and the Income Tax department at every level. Every possible measure is taken to see that not only do we take action from our side, but that they are in tandem with the income tax department also.
Karnataka goes to polls soon and we know what havoc money power can play there.
Karnataka has 50,000 polling stations. We can’t have 50,000 flying squads, which is not to say that our machinery should not do their job. But, in addition, we request the people to help. The problem does arise that when a complaint is given, action is not taken in due time. These are matters that we should be more concerned about and the civil society can definitely help by evolving and utilising their network.
Do you think political parties and their functioning need to be governed under a law? Your views on inner party democracy within political parties in India.
The need for promoting transparency in the functioning of political parties is very important. It is one of our proposals that there should be a full fledged law governing the functioning of political parties. On internal democracy of the political parties, the less said the better. All these things should be addressed by a comprehensive legislation.