NEW DELHI (TIP): The Supreme Court on September 13 ushered in a fresh dose of electoral reforms by ruling that no one can contest elections without making a full and honest disclosure about his/her assets and educational and criminal antecedents. Curbing the practice among candidates to leave columns demanding information blank in the affidavits filed along with nomination papers, the court authorized returning officers to demand relevant details and reject nomination papers if the details are not furnished despite reminder. This judgment came from a bench of Chief Justice P Sathasivam and Justices Ranjana P Desai and Ranjan Gogoi, which appeared undeterred by lawmakers’ protest in Parliament and attempt to undo the apex court’s two landmark judgments delivered on July 10 – one disqualifying MPs and MLAs convicted in serious crimes and the other debarring arrested persons from contesting polls.

Candidates left columns in affidavits blank to step around the SC’s two earlier judgments – Association for Democratic Reforms in 2002 and People’s Union for Civil Liberties in 2003 — which mandated a contestant to furnish details of his criminal and educational antecedents as well as assets owned by him, his spouse and children. If no affidavit is given, the returning officer rejects the nomination paper. If false information is given in the affidavit, it makes them liable to perjury charges. To overcome the twin predicament in a scenario where many candidates have criminal track records and face allegations of disproportionate assets, the candidates had devised the antidote to the legal requirement – leave the columns in the affidavit blank. NGO ‘Resurgence India’ brought this issue before the apex court and sought a direction to make it compulsory for returning officers to ensure that the affidavits filed by contestants are complete in all respects and to reject those affidavits which leave information columns blank.

Writing the judgment for the bench, CJI Sathasivam said in a vibrant and dynamic democracy like ours, a voter had the elementary right to know full particulars of a candidate who would represent him in Parliament. “Such right to get information is a universally recognized natural right flowing from the concept of democracy and is an integral part of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution (guaranteeing right to freedom of speech and expression),” he said. “In unequivocal terms, it is recognized that the citizen’s right to know the candidate who represents him in Parliament will constitute an integral part of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India and any act which is derogative of the fundamental right is at the very outset ultra vires (unconstitutional),” the bench said. Can filing of an affidavit stating that the information given in the affidavit is correct but leaving the contents blank fulfill the objective behind filing it along with nomination papers? The bench said it was unacceptable that a candidate would leave blank the columns demanding information about his antecedents and assets.

“The ultimate purpose of filing of affidavit along with the nomination paper is to effectuate the fundamental right of the citizen under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The citizens are required to have the necessary information at the time of filing of the nomination papers in order to make a choice of their voting.When a candidate files an affidavit with blank particulars, it renders the affidavit itself nugatory,” it said. To make the affidavit meaningful and informative for voters, the returning officer could compel the candidates to fill up the blank spaces, the bench said. Justices Sathasivam, Desai and Gogoi reiterated that “it is the duty of the returning officer to check whatever the information required is fully furnished at the time of filing of affidavit with the nomination paper since such information is very vital for giving effect to the ‘right to know’ of the citizens. If a candidate fails to fill the blanks even after the reminder by the returning officer, the nomination paper is fit to be rejected.”

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