MARCH 17, 2003 MON
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Come clean, court tells Indian politicians

Supreme Court declares as 'null and void' their bid to quash order for poll candidates to disclose assets and criminal background

By V.k. Raghunathan

NEW DELHI - The world's most populous democracy can do with a bit more honesty, India's highest court has decided.

Candidates wishing to contest elections have been told to come clean on their wealth and own up to any criminal records - a rebuff by the court of an earlier move by political parties to evade public scrutiny.

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The idea is to guard against such scenarios as politicians running for office from jail while they await trial, without telling voters.

Others with serious convictions are permitted to stand after they launch legal appeals, which due to endemic court delays, can take years.

The Indian Supreme Court has also indicted the federal government for making half-hearted attempts to reform electoral laws and not doing enough to prevent the use of money and muscle power during elections.

In May last year, the court had ordered the federal Election Commission to frame rules to ensure that politicians declared their assets and kept the voter informed if they faced any criminal charges.

The court said that such a declaration would help the voter make the right choice during elections.

The commission, responsible for conducting elections in the country, complied with the court order.

But in July last year, all the political parties closed ranks and Parliament adopted an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, rejecting the commission's new norms.

In its ruling on Thursday, the Supreme Court said that the July 2002 amendment deprived the people of their right to know their candidates before they voted for them.

So the court rejected it as being 'illegal, null and void' and beyond the legislative competence of the parliament.

Insisting that its May 2002 order was final and could not be sidetracked by the amendment, the court ordered the Election Commission to issue a fresh set of rules for politicians to come clean on their wealth and their criminal background, if any, when they stand for elections.

The court said: 'There can be little doubt that exposure to public gaze and scrutiny is one of the surest means to cleanse our democratic governing system and to have competent legislature.'

The ruling came after petitions filed by three non-government organisations - the People's Union for Civil Liberties, Lok Satta and the Association for Democratic Reforms - challenging the validity of the amendment.

Political parties pointed out that the amendment had been made after a thorough discussion last year.

The latest verdict had to be studied carefully, they said, and urged the federal government to call for an all-party meeting to discuss the issue.

Some members said politicians in power could misuse the rules to frame their rivals in a criminal case.

'We welcome transparency but we have to carefully study why the court objected to the amendment made by all parties and then discuss it in an all-party meeting,' Mr V.K. Malhotra, spokesman for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads the ruling federal coalition, told the Hindustan Times.

Mr Ramjilal Suman, a member of the opposition Samajwadi Party, said: 'All parties had sat together last year and formulated certain provisions to make elections more transparent.

Now another all-party meeting must be called to debate this order.

'A criminal case is not important. What is important is what kind of case it is. Anybody can slap any case for political vendetta,' he said.

Leftist politician Prakash Karat said the court order would not solve the problem.

But Mr Oscar Fernandes, member of the opposition Congress Party, said that since it was a Supreme Court order, it had to be followed.


117 MPs CHARGED

NEW DELHI - The Lower House of the Indian Parliament has 117 members who have had cases of murder, rape, extortion and robbery filed against them, a news magazine here reported.

Citing a federal Home Ministry report, the magazine said 19 MPs had more than three criminal cases against them and 71 of them could not get loans from financial institutions because of poor credit ratings.

Seven had been arrested for fraud and 29 faced charges of ill-treating their wives.

Some of the prominent ones are:

  • L.K. Advani, Federal Home Minister: Accused of having abetted the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992.

  • Murli Manohar Joshi, Federal Minister for Science and Technology: Also faces charges in the Babri demolition case.

  • Sharad Yadav, Federal Minister for Consumer Affairs: Charged with receiving 500,000 rupees (S$18,400) from an illegal foreign exchange or 'hawala' dealer.

  • Laloo Prasad Yadav, former Bihar chief minister: Jailed after being charged by the federal police in a 7.5 billion-rupee scam in the Animal Husbandry department.

  • Satish Sharma, opposition Congress member from Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh: Charged with involvement in bribing some MPs to get them to back the Congress government during a parliamentary vote in the early 1990s.


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