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Transparency No Bar

Murali KRISHNAN

Saturday 20 December 2003, by KRISHNAN*Murali

Article paru dans Outlook India, édition en ligne du 20 décembre 2003.

Candidates’ education may have influenced voters but not their money or crimes.

It was touted as an election with a difference. For the first time, voters in the four states-Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Delhi-were given the right to know the background of the candidates they would elect as their policymakers. But the Election Commission’s (EC’s) diktat to all those in the fray to disclose their assets, criminal antecedents and educational qualifications in the recently concluded round of assembly elections has exercised only a marginal influence on the choice exercised by the voters. Certainly not to the extent the EC had hoped for.

A scan of the affidavits filed in the four states and the final outcome at the hustings shows that many candidates with criminal antecedents were posted to easy victory. Nor was money power a deterrent: several legislators in the newly convened assemblies had assets, both moveable and immoveable, running into crores of rupees. Perhaps the one redeeming feature in these elections was that the electorate voted for more ’educated’ legislators than in the previous years.

That crime and politics go hand in hand and that voters do not always see a criminal past as a disqualification was best reflected in the Delhi elections. Of the 817 candidates in the fray, 70 had cognisable criminal cases against them ranging from rioting, criminal assault, trespass, intimidation and, in one case, murder. As many as 25 of these candidates-13 from the Congress, 12 from the BJP-won their seat. Leaders of both parties admit that it is not easy to deny tickets to sitting mlas who are sure winners even though they may have a case registered against them.

Delhi also saw 43 crorepatis in the fray. Eighteen made it finally-14 from the Congress and four from the BJP. As for educational qualifications, 36 per cent of the candidates were graduates, 27 per cent post-graduates with degrees in engineering, medicine and chartered accountancy, and 20 per cent were matriculates. According to an EC official, educational qualification became a criterion because of the large number of younger voters who were unwilling to cast their votes for an illiterate candidate.

Collating the data from the four states-the exercise was not carried out in Mizoram-was difficult. Information was not readily forthcoming from the candidates and many concealed facts pertaining to their wealth and their criminal record. Bibhu Mohapatra from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, who helped set up election watch groups in the four states, told Outlook, "It was a mammoth exercise to compile this data. In many cases, in both MP and Rajasthan, for instance, we found candidates not declaring the actual property they owned. In five regions of MP, we found that for every property disclosed by a candidate in the affidavit, four and in some cases, five immoveable properties were kept a secret." Adds Jayaprakash, the chairperson of Hyderabad-based ngo Loksatta and convenor of the National Campaign for Electoral Reforms: "It is a myth to say that voters cast their votes knowing what the candidate’s actual financial antecedents were. How does the voter know what a candidate is declaring is true? He will conceal many things to escape the taxman and in most cases, the candidate discloses very little."

In MP, just verifying the affidavits of 2,186 candidates and making them available to voters was a laborious task. The state had the highest number of candidates with a criminal record (153). Thirty-six of them are in the newly constituted assembly-33 from the BJP and three from other parties. Rioting with deadly weapons, singing obscene songs in public, assault, wrongful restraint, causing hurt and theft are some of the offences the new legislators have been charged with.

Moneyed candidates too seemed to have found favour with voters in MP.As many as 400 candidates were worth over a crore of rupees. Sixty of them won-50 from the BJP and 10 from the Congress. But it wasn’t easy initially to get affidavits from these crorepatis. Says Rakesh Ranjan, MP’s election watch coordinator: "We kept an active watch on the declarations made by the candidates. In some cases, the district collectors refused to part with the information and it required the EC’s intervention to help make the affidavits public knowledge."

Much the same trend as MP emerged in Rajasthan, although Congress leaders from the state claim their party has far lesser ’criminal’ legislators than the BJP. But this could be more because of the party’s rout in the elections. For, as EC officials point out, the winning party is likely to have more candidates with a criminal record simply because it has won a larger share of the seats. There were 104 candidates with criminal antecedents and of the 23 who finally made it, 20 were from the BJP and three from the Congress.

When it came to the moneybags, 26 of the 59 candidates who owned more than Rs 1 crore emerged victorious-16 from the BJP, 10 from the Congress. Strangely, 60 candidates declared they had no assets (moveable or immoveable). Of these, 33 were independent candidates, two from the Bahujan Samaj Party, seven from the Samajwadi Party and one each from the CPI, Janata Dal (United), Republican Party of India and the Samata Party. Like in the other states, better educated candidates found favour with voters.

What has come as a surprise is Chhattisgarh. The tribal-dominated state, often dismissed as backward, had a healthy number of highly qualified candidates from both the BJP and the Congress. The Congress fielded 63 candidates-among them 18 were either MBAs or CAs. Five held doctorates and one was a doctor. Fifteen candidates were graduates and seven had completed their matriculation. The BJP list too was impressive. Of the 67 candidates it fielded, 13 were MBAs/CAs, nine had MPhil or PhD degrees, 17 were graduates and seven matriculates. Here, former CM Ajit Jogi was the lone Congress candidate with a criminal record. The BJP’s record was less saintly: it put up 21 candidates with a criminal past. Only 18 candidates declared they had assets worth Rs 1 crore.

The EC, on its part, is yet to analyse in detail how far such declarations influenced the voter. "This is the first time that filing affidavits has been made compulsory. And if election watch groups can keep a strict vigil, it will have a positive effect in future elections," said a senior EC official. Civil rights and other citizens’ watch groups feel that the new transparency has had one positive impact-political parties this time were reluctant to field new candidates with criminal records. "Past legislators who already had criminal antecedents have stayed on, but we find no new names coming in," says Kuldeep Das, a Delhi-based civil rights activist. However, most observers believe that the only way to gain maximum advantage from the EC’s exercise was to have publicised the antecedents of candidates a lot earlier than it was done this time.

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