Some TV news channels have been boasting that it was the pressure of their respective campaigns that made Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi recently ambush his own government. This could be true up to a point. Imagine what may have happened if Gandhi had not barged into the press conference of his party’s general secretary Ajay Maken in September. The country might then have been living today with an ordinance, whose purpose was to protect convicted MPs/MLAs from an adverse Supreme Court judgement which would bar them from continuing in office.
However, the real heroes in this story were neither activist journalists, nor new-generation leaders, not even the honourable Supreme Court judge who delivered the verdict.The credit must go to 85-year-old Supreme Court advocate Lily Thomas and the Lucknow-based NGO Lok Prahari—they each filed petitions in 2005 against a provision in the Representation of The People Act, 1951, that protected convicted law makers from immediate disqualification.
In July this year, the Supreme Court set aside the clause, throwing our political class into collective anxiety.
Perhaps not many are aware that an organization called Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) collaborated with the original plaintiffs by intervening in the landmark litigation in 2012. It supplemented the petition by providing relevant information on criminally-tainted electoral candidates as well as parliamentarians.
Now, don’t get mistaken by such a footnote mention—what makes the Delhi-based ADR unique is that since its inception in 1999 it has participated in almost every significant effort brought about in cleansing our electoral democracy.
“The ADR has played an absolutely critical role in starting, and taking forward, the debate on the criminalization of Indian politics,” says Bangalore-based historian and political commentator Ramachandra Guha. “I admire it as much for its methods as for its aims—for it is focused, low-key, with a long-term vision, run as a collective rather than by a dominant and charismatic personality; in all these respects, so different from most NGOs and social movements in India.”
The fourth-floor office of the ADR in south Delhi’s tree-lined Qutub Institutional Area does not feel charged with the sort of energy and angst that might pull down a rotten system. What you see is dozens of young people glued to their computer screens. Not one of them sports a radical hair cut or wears a crumpled Khadi kurta—stereotypical attributes of a standard issue activist/revolutionary.
Instead, another world is being made possible without fuss. The busybodies are gathering background facts on politicians, tracing the funding routes of political parties, and following the legal proceedings of the various PILs (public interest litigations) that the ADR is associated with.
“Our mission is to improve the political and electoral system as part of an overall effort to upgrade democracy and governance,” says Jagdeep Chhokar, ADR’s co-founder and former director in-charge of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A).
The ADR was formed by 11 citizens, eight of whom were professors at the IIM-A. The same year, the new organization made a game-changing move—it filed a PIL in the Delhi high court asking for disclosure of the criminal, financial and educational backgrounds of the candidates contesting in election. The Supreme Court, in two subsequent judgements, made it mandatory for candidates to submit such information in an affidavit to the Election Commission (EC).
“The May 2002 and March 2003 judgements are extremely significant for us,” says Mashqura Fareedi, programme officer, ADR. “They are still a work in progress. Last month (in September), the Supreme Court ruled that a candidate who hides facts or gives false information on his poll affidavit cannot contest.”
The ADR made the best use of the information available in these affidavits by creating an exhaustive online database of about 63,000 contesting candidates. All that you have to do is visit the website: www.myneta.info and type a politician’s name to instantly get his or her details. Uttar Pradesh’s Bal Kumar Patel of Samajwadi Party, for instance, is charged with murder. Gujarat’s Vitthalbhai Hansrajbhai Radadiya of BJP has two charges of dacoity. Bihar’s Jagdis Sharma of Janata Dal (United) has six charges of “cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property”. Bihar’s independent candidate Dinesh Rathour with 52 cases against him tops the charts (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh can be accused of owning only one car, a Maruti 800).
The ADR also runs a helpline on which “you can get complete details of your neta by calling us at 1800-110-440 or sending SMS at 92465560700”.
“The most common query on the helpline is on candidates who have contested or will be contesting from the caller’s constituency,” says Lakshmi Sriram, programme associate, ADR. “One bizarre query we recently received was on how to be a contender in the upcoming Delhi election.”
Recently, the ADR produced a report that exposed what was already suspected: Since 2008, 30% of our 4,807 MPs and MLAs are facing criminal cases; 14% of them face serious charges such as murder and rape.
Another analysis by the ADR revealed that the total income of six principal political parties—the ruling Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, the Communist Party of India (CPI), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), between the financial years 2004-05 and 2011-12 was Rs.4,895.96 crore—only 8.9% of it was from known donors.
This secrecy is to end.
In June, the Central Information Commission, acting on separate applications filed by RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal and the ADR, brought the six national parties under the ambit of the RTI Act, thereby bringing their entire funding under public scrutiny—at a time when the Lok Sabha election is due within a year and assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram are to begin later this month.
ADR staffers are rolling up their sleeves as the new voting cycle begins and candidates start to file their affidavits in the five states.
“Our most important task will be to quickly share information on the criminal antecedents of the candidates with as many voters as possible so that they can make an informed choice in the ballot box,” says Fareedi. “We will put up online campaigns, hold yatras and seminars and mobilize public opinion against crime and money power in politics.”
The 27-member organization will work in coordination with the National Election Watch, a platform it helped set up in 2003 with 1,200 groups spread across the country.In mid-September the ADR launched the online competition Mera Vote, Mera Desh (My Vote, My Country). “Let’s reclaim our democracy, let’s reclaim our country”, the campaign urges people—it is “looking for entries with a positive can-do message, with a dash of humour and an earthy touch that would appeal to the common voter”.
Such wit and earthiness may well have been child’s play for the rustic Lalu Prasad—the former Bihar chief minister, currently in jail for corruption.
R10,000 can help them to
• Collate information on 40 candidates contesting in elections.
• Obtain information on the income-tax returns of 20 political parties.
• Reach out to about 50 people in a constituency to spread awareness about the need for electoral and political reforms.
If you volunteer, you will
• Reach out to colleges/resident welfare associations/youth groups (physically or virtually), to talk about voting and its importance.
• Find innovative ways to spread information about data on criminality and money power in politics.
• Assist them in their legal and research initiatives.
• Ford Foundation