No one wants to vote for a criminal. And yet for years criminals have been using our electoral system to enter politics, with citizens hopelessly looking on. Until recently our laws did not sanction Election officials asking candidates for detailed information about their criminal and financial backgrounds, let alone making this information available to citizens before the polls began.
But as India went to her largest election exercise ever this year, the balance has perhaps begun to shift in favour of voters. India's 2004 elections are the first and the largest national election exercise that are being fought under the new election disclosure rules instituted in 2003. Candidates for Parliament and State Assemblies are now required to submit sworn affidavits along with their nomination papers giving information about their criminal, financial, and educational backgrounds.
Nationwide, citizens wanting to know more about their candidates have a better opportunity at this before casting their ballot. To the cynics, this is a drop in the ocean and may not lead to much. The others, this may be the beginning of a new era in Indian democracy; an era of opportunity for citizens' initiatives to mobilize around publicly available information.
During the current elections cycle, the Election Commission opened the gates for the media and citizens to collect copies of candidate affidavits from Returning Officers and the District Election Officers. Ten states are having some form of election watch campaign, indicating a broad-based nationwide civil society initiative to give teeth to the EC rules. Some state election commissions have already made candidate disclosures public on their websites and election watches have been distributing analyses to the media and citizens.
How did this change in the system come about? Importantly, what can be learned about citizens' initiatives and their effectiveness in this light?
Find out by listening to Professor Jagdeep Chhokar who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Chhokar is one of the founding members of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), a non-profit organization working for better governance. ADR filed a public interest litigation in 1999 that culminated in the Supreme Court instituting the anti-criminalization rules in 2003. Professor Chhokar also talks about the critical role of election systems on the quality of governance and importance of systemic reforms as the driver of change. The programs run for 30 minutes.