Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh, India): This time round it promises to be an election with a difference, but then why not. As, at long last the citizens of India are now keen to elect and send clean and committed representatives to form the 15th Lok Sabha of the largest democracy in the world.
But is it possible to pick such candidates and place them in the parliament, given the years of dominance by leaders known to have criminal antecedents and whom the electoral process has been putting up with for decades?
It most certainly is, feel most activists in Uttar Pradesh (UP), a state which has earned the dubious distinction of electing and sending the largest number of tainted candidates to both the Lok Sabha and its own assembly the UP Vidhan Sabha.
Reasons Prabha Chaturvedi, a social activist whose organisation Exnora, has been campaigning against criminalisation in politics and has educated a good number in the city about such candidates, "The only way people with criminal antecedents can be kept out of the parliament is to actually vote them out. That's why exercising your franchise is of utmost importance. Until the electoral does not reject such candidates and say so by exercising their voting right even if it means going in for negative voting, the democratic process of the country will continue to give everyone even those with tainted background a right to contest the elections. It's up to the citizens to say 'NO' to such people who might end up leading our country."
Agrees Rajiv Hemkeshav a social activist aligned with the Jai Prakash Narayan (JP) movement, who started a signature campaign against the candidature of Sanjay Dutt to express the rejection of his candidature as Samajwadi Party (SP)'s candidate from Lucknow, "Based on the 1000 signatures a case was made to give a voice to the voters from Lucknow on Dutt's candidature. We have appealed to the Supreme Court to not give Dutt the permission to contest the elections, the hearing is up for 30 March 2009 and in all probability the voters' request will be considered. That's the power a common man's voice has, as people are supreme and have the power to change laws and stop such individuals from reaching the country's highest policy making machinery. Public awareness of the People's Representative Act also is a must to filter out tainted representatives."
But while the movement to clean up politics in UP is gaining grounds some feel it could also turn into a witch hunt taking a toll on many such candidates who are not criminals in the true sense of the word.
Says Himanshu Singh, a senior politician who has been associated with the Kisan Andolan movement against the large corporates out to privatise the Indian agrarian economy , "One must be sensitive to the fact that not everyone who has gone to jail or has cases filed against them are criminals. I myself have 17 cases filed against me and have gone to jail during my involvement in the andolan, so technically I too don't qualify as a clean candidate in the true sense of the word. But that's where a differentiation must be made between candidates like me and Sanjay Dutt etc. I also support the fact that it is necessary to project a clean candidate but it is crucial to be fully informed about the tainted one's too. Politics is a brutal game and just by negative voting things will not change, the focus has to be on arming the electorate with correct information too."
A fact that Ashish Tripathi, a senior journalist with the Times of India, and an expert on UP politics endorses,"I agree that a clear distinction is necessary when it comes to branding a contestant a criminal. For that FIRs should not be the deciding factor of a person's criminal antecedents we must see that a charge sheet has been filed post investigation and the person is facing a trail. In such circumstances he must not be allowed to contest elections at any cost, Sanjay Dutt being a fitting example. But then the question arises how will we decide about candidates like Narendra Modi, who does not have a single charge sheet filed against him and neither is he facing a trail but everyone knows that he is responsible for inciting riots in Godhra? In such cases the public role becomes paramount as they should give a clear verdict by rejecting such leaders. For that they must be made aware of such candidates, arming the voter with information about tainted candidates in the electorate has a very powerful impact, for instance in 2002 Lok Sabha elections out of 403 strength in the UP Vidhan Sabha a shocking 200 elected candidates were with criminal antecedents. But following the citizen's movements thereon to inform and make aware the electorate by groups like Associations of Democratic Reforms and many more working nationwide the tremendous fallout was seen in elections of 2007 when only 100 candidates with tainted backgrounds made it to the UP Vidhan Sabha. This year hopefully the numbers will reduce further. So the message is clear that finally it is the citizen who will have to exercise their democratic right and vote such individuals out, so that prospective candidates understand that if they have to be the people's representative their conduct has to be squeaky clean."
An added plus of such a people's initiative is that even the youth have been motivated enough to start their own anti-corruption campaign to expose tainted candidates at the block levels in rural India.
Say Himanshu and Mahendra Singh, young firebrand activist who have launched Project Vijay (www.lucknowmail.com/project_vijay) with a group of like minded youngsters to clean up the political system of criminals and corruption,"We educate the core of the political process which originates from rural India, and we tell them what is the actual democratic process. The governance of the people is for the people in which the leaders and bureaucrats are merely public servants. But that can only be reiterated if people exercise their franchise even if it means negative voting as that provision has been given to the voter in the constitution under Rule 49 (O) through which you can demand for the Form 17-A register which has to be provided by the election officer-on-duty and make a negative vote in the voter register. We advocate negative voting as this will ensure not only rejection of criminals as candidates but will also motivate the people to come till the polling booth and exercise their voting right."
Adds PN Kalki, a city based constitutional rights activists who has been promoting Rule 49 (O) extensively amongst the voters,"In present election procedure itself there is a facility to filter out uneligible candidates from reaching the parliament. During counting of votes the "not to vote" are separately counted as well but not many people know this. Although, there is no set procedure, or set of rules that could define what to do if the number of such kind of votes (not to vote) are more than the number of votes given to the wining candidate, nevertheless Rule 49 (O) is statutory rules and orders in The Code of conduct of Election Rules, 1961 of Election Commission of India that gives the right to the electorate to pick "not to vote". This rule states that if none of the candidates seem appealing or worthy enough to the voter he can be rejected. This can be done by informing the election officer of particular election booth, who will provide the voter with the Form 17-A. The rule can act as a powerful filter against candidates who do not have a clean background."
Finally the Indian voter is awakening from their slumber, will it herald a new era in the history of Indian politics we just have to wait and see.With bated breath of course!
Anjali Singh - Citizen News Service (CNS)
(The author is a senior journalist and Director of Saaksham Foundation. Email: saakshamforchildrights [at] gmail.com)