False Affidavits: MPs must be penalized

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False Affidavits: MPs must be penalized

There is no law requiring candidates to submit documents to substantiate the claims made in their affidavits; this should change

Two public interest petitions filed before the Supreme Court are seeking strong penal action against MPs and MLAs who are dishonest in their averments about their assets and liabilities or their criminal record in the affidavits they submit while contesting elections or have amassed wealth disproportionate to the sources of income disclosed by them. 

In the first of these cases filed by Lok Prahari, an NGO, the petitioner says mere declaration of assets while filing the nomination papers is not enough.

Every candidate must also disclose the sources of income because the assets of several MPs and MLAs had seen a phenomenal jump between two elections. It told the court that the assets of 320 MPs who were re-elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014 had increased by 100 per cent.

The assets of six MPs had jumped by over a whopping 1,000 per cent and that of 26 MPs by 500 per cent. A large number of MLAs also had reported a steep rise in wealth.

The Income-Tax authorities, after examining these cases, told the court that in respect of seven MPs and 98 MLAs, they had found proof that the assets declared in election affidavits were beyond known sources of income.  The court asked the Union Government to set up special courts to fast track cases of corruption and disproportionate assets relating to MPs and MLAs.

In the second case, the petitioner has said that while the apex court has ensured that candidates file affidavits in regard to their assets and liabilities, educational qualifications and criminal record, there is no mechanism to verify the authenticity of the claims made. Nor is there a mechanism to punish those who file false affidavits.

The petitioner said that although the apex court had done much to bring about transparency in the process of election and made it mandatory for candidates to disclose information on various counts, there was no mechanism to verify the authenticity of the affidavit submitted by candidates. There was need to ensure this. The court has asked the Union Government and the Election Commission to respond to this submission.

The outcome in these two cases will determine how far we will advance in ensuring the accountability of elected representatives to the laws in force and to the people who elect them. But, it has not been easy to get the country’s politicians to be transparent in respect of all these matters. It has been a long drawn battle.

The Law Commission made the first move in this regard when it said in its 170 Report on Electoral Reform in 1999 that the Representation of the People Act, 1951 must be amended to make the filing of an affidavit regarding assets and liabilities and criminal record of the candidate mandatory.

However, elected representatives remained cool to the idea because any reform that brings in transparency and accountability in the electoral arena has never been popular with MPs and MLAs. Eventually, the political class was forced to accept these proposals after the Supreme Court stepped in and virtually laid down the law in this regard in 2002. The apex court directed the Election Commission to assist on the filing of affidavits giving all these details, including criminal background, if any.

Giving in to pressure from all sides, Parliament sought to partially overturn the Supreme Court’s judgement when it amended the Act to say that candidates must file affidavits giving details of criminal charges framed by a court, but nothing more. It said there was no need to provide any information about assets, liabilities and educational qualifications and any other information sought by the election authorities.

These provisions were challenged in yet another case and the Supreme Court had to step in once again and hold the amendment that sought to nullify its earlier order, as unconstitutional. Eventually, following this judgement of the apex court, it became mandatory for all candidates to file affidavits on all these aspects.

Now, the law requires candidates to parliament and state assembly elections to furnish an affidavit and provide information of their assets, liabilities and criminal record, if any. The affidavit must contain information regarding the candidate’s PAN number, income tax returns of the candidate, spouse and all dependents, details about the moveable and immovable assets owned by the candidate, spouse and all dependents and the liabilities of the candidate vis a vis Government and public financial institutions. The candidate is also required to provide information regarding profession, occupation and educational qualifications.

This judgement of the Supreme Court in 2002 brought about a major improvement in regard to transparency in the electoral arena. Until the filing of such an affidavit became compulsory, the electorate had little or no information about the candidate – no one knew if the candidate was educated or not; whether the candidate was rich or poor; or whether the candidate had a criminal record. The people were making electoral choices without any information about the candidates in the fray. All that they would get to know by word of mouth was probably the caste of the candidate and the party ticket on which he was contesting the election. 

After the filing of affidavits became mandatory, the electorate is armed with information because the local media in every constituency publishes details of the affidavits filed by candidates.

This has also enabled local media to check the information filed by candidates in successive elections and make a comparative study of a candidate’s assets and liabilities, criminal record and educational qualifications. This has certainly brought about much needed transparency, but as the two petitions before the Supreme Court tell us, much more is needed.

As the evidence gathered by Lok Prahari shows, many MPs and MLAs have reported a 500 per cent jump in their assets over a five year period.

This is certainly a matter worthy of investigation by the Income-Tax department as also agencies which probe cases of corruption. Further, both petitions point to the fact that there is paucity of information in regard to the sources of income.

As the second petition insists, there is no mechanism in place to check the veracity of averments made in the affidavits. Also, there was no law requiring the candidate to submit documents to substantiate the claims made. The outcomes in these two petitions need to be keenly watched. It could mean another big step towards cleansing electoral politics. Hopefully, we will also be wiser on how, for some politicians, electoral success and wealth accumulation go hand in hand.

(The writer is Chairman, Prasar Bharati. Views expressed here are personal.)

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