Wednesday, March 18, 2009

India: Network of Activists and Orgs Aim to End Election of Criminal Politicians by Publicly Exposing their Crimes and Misdeeds

The Global Post reports that a network of activists and organizations known as the "National Election Watch" in India have dedicated themselves to making sure criminals do not end up in charge of the government.  India's middle class — which is still too small to be a decisive voice at the polls — is famous for political apathy.  Campaigns do not come down to issues, but instead often rely on mobilizing party workers to pass out free booze to voters in the slums. In some states, criminal gangs intimidate poor farmers into voting for their leader, while in others party cadres allegedly harass and threaten non-sympathizers, sometimes confiscating their voter registration cards. Money and muscle have become so important that every major party relies on candidates charged in criminal cases to deliver the vote. Nearly a quarter of the legislators in India's recently dissolved parliament had criminal cases pending against them — and not just for white-collar crimes, but also murder and other violent offenses. 

However, educated Indians are beginning to strike back. It started in 1999 when Trilochan Sastry, then a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, approached some of his colleagues with an idea for a guerrilla hit on the nation's unresponsive political parties.  Sastry suggested filing a lawsuit demanding that candidates divulge their financial assets and criminal records when the parties file their nominations.  In 1999, Sastry and colleagues, now calling themselves the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), filed this suit in the Delhi High Court.  In 2000 the court ruled in favor of the ADR and mandated the Election Commission gather information on candidates’ criminal backgrounds, assets, and liabilities, assess their suitability for holding public office, and widely publicize the findings.  In 2001 the Indian Government appealed against the judgment in the Supreme Court and several political parties intervened in the case.  In 2002 the Supreme Court affirmed and the Election Commission asked the Government to amend the Conduct of Election Rules to implement the judgment.  But the Government refused and instead introduced a new bill to overturn the judgment, which the President signed.  In 2003 the Supreme Court declared the amended act to be illegal, null, and void, and restored its earlier judgment.  The rules came into effect in 2003 and even after they were required to disclose their criminal records, all the major parties fielded a host of candidates with pending criminal cases in 2004, with the result that 128 out of 543 members of the last legislature faced ongoing criminal cases while they were in office.  At least two were serving life sentences for murder.

Because requiring politicians to divulge the most dubious facts about themselves didn't stop them from running for office — or winning — ADR set up the National Election Watch to make sure that the press and the voters know exactly how many robberies, kidnappings, and murders their honorable member of parliament is alleged to have committed.  The group has mobilized 1,200 organizations and thousands of volunteers to track the activities of dozens of political parties in the run-up to elections. Researchers comb through past affidavits to see whether the candidate has declared criminal cases in the past, and whether there has been any major change in his or her financial assets.  They lobby the press, hold public rallies, and plan to send weekly text messages with details of politicians' criminal records to voters.  So far, results have been mixed.

In the last state election that ADR tracked, the number of candidates with alleged criminal pasts dropped to about 12% from 25 %, but the number of alleged criminals who actually won seats remained flat.  The Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government named Shibu Soren coal minister, even though he was on trial for multiple murders (he was later convicted, then acquitted on appeal). And neither of the two party heavyweights has managed to purge alleged (or even convicted) criminals from their ranks. But the man who started it all remains optimistic: “The parties have publicly announced that they're not going to put up candidates with criminal records,” Sastry says. “They have not kept that promise, no doubt. But at least they have started reacting.” 


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