Nervy MPs unite to fight disclosure law
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
In a rare display of unity, prompted by the instinct for survival, politicians have joined hands to oppose a Supreme Court ruling requiring political candidates to declare their financial position, educational qualifications and criminal antecedents, if any.
The recent ruling was aimed at giving voters better quality candidates by cleansing the system of criminals and semi-literate and corruptible figures who have been trooping into politics in growing numbers.
Political parties keep making pious promises about not giving tickets to such undesirables, but promptly abandon their scruples if the candidate stands a good chance of winning a seat.
Acting on the Supreme Court order, the Election Commission issued guidelines to all parties. It also made clear that its officials would have the power to reject the nomination of any candidate who failed to make the declaration or gave incomplete or false information. It also planned to enforce the new rules in an election for a seat in the upper house of parliament on July 25.
Given the looming date, urgency could be detected at the all-party meeting that rejected the ruling. From Maoist idealists to far-right Hindu chauvinists, the representatives of 21 parties closed ranks, deciding to counter the rules by introducing their own law in the forthcoming session of parliament. 'We are racing against time,' said Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and Law Minister Jana Khrishnamurthy.
Their greatest beef is with the rule allowing Election Commission officials to reject a nomination. They believe officials could be politically motivated in disqualifying candidates.
Mr Khrishnamurthy said politicians did not oppose voters' rights to information about a candidate but felt that 'arbitrary' powers were being invested in Election Commission officials.
Politicians also oppose other aspects of the ruling: they do not want candidates to have to disclose any criminal charges or cases if these are related to political activities; they want only winning candidates, not all, to have to declare their assets; and they see no need for a compulsory disclosure of educational qualifications.
Over the next few days, the government will be drafting a bill on this issue that will be certain to be a highly diluted version of the Supreme Court order. When asked if the bill was intended to nullify the court's attempt to introduce more probity into public life, Mr Khrishnamurthy sought refuge in the separation of powers between parliament and the judiciary. 'I see no need for confrontation between parliament and the Supreme Court. Parliament is supreme where enacting laws is concerned,' he said.
Activists who have been campaigning against the rising amount of crime within Indian politics are appalled. 'Why are they fighting shy of disclosing their assets or whether they have studied at all?,' asked former law minister Shanti Bhushan.
Another lawyer, R. K. Jain, said the decision demonstrated 'their total lack of commitment to cleaning up the corruption in the system'.
Official figures show at least 40 MPs in the national parliament and 700 state assembly legislators face criminal charges over offences such as murder, rape, theft and extortion. A former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, when asked how he intended to tackle law and order problems when 22 of his cabinet ministers had criminal backgrounds, shrugged: 'I don't care about their backgrounds. They've been elected.'
One thing is certain: when parliament convenes later this week, this is one bill guaranteed to sail through.