India is often hailed for its democracy, for empowering its poor and ordinary citizens to participate in the electoral process and play a role in shaping the country. This narrative has increasingly come under strain since the Supreme Court, through its March 2003 judgment in Union of India vs Association for Democratic Reforms, made it mandatory for candidates contesting elections to disclose their wealth, educational qualification, and criminal cases pending against them at the time they file their nominations. The Supreme Court judgment came after the Association for Democratic Reforms, or ADR, a non-governmental organisation working on electoral reforms, moved the Delhi high court in 1999 for an order asking candidates to disclose information that would help voters make an informed choice. The high court ruled in the ADR’s favour. The union government went in appeal to the Supreme Court, which upheld the high court judgment.
The candidates’ disclosures, including those made for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, show that our democracy has gradually become the preserve of the wealthy and criminals. According to a report by the ADR, in the ongoing elections, nearly 19 percent of candidates have pending criminal cases against them, while 13 percent of candidates have cases of a serious nature such as murder, attempt to murder, rape or crimes against women. Meanwhile, 29 percent of the candidates have assets worth Rs 1 crore or more, an increase from 16 percent in the 2009 elections.
Amid the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the independent journalist Ajaz Ashraf spoke to Jagdeep S Chhokar, one of the founders and trustees of the ADR, about political funding, the notion of voters having a choice and the subversion of Indian democracy. “The choice of a voter is pre-constrained by the choices made by a set of political parties,” Chhokar said. “We have a charade of elections. Every five years we convince ourselves that we are a democracy.”
Ajaz Ashraf: What are your parameters for judging the quality of any democracy?
Jagdeep S Chhokar: A defining characteristic of a good democracy is representativeness—whether every citizen has a sense that he or she has a say in how the society is being governed. If a candidate is elected from a Lok Sabha constituency on the basis of 15 percent votes, can he or she be truly regarded as the people’s representative? That is why the Law Commission of India recommended in its 170th report that a candidate should not be declared elected unless he or she gets 50 percent plus one of the votes cast. But in a really good democracy the person should get 50 percent plus one of the registered votes. To use a cliché, democracy is a continuous journey without a destination to reach. That is why we should look at the degree of democratisation. Some countries have a higher degree of democratisation than others.
AA: A 2014 analysis by your ADR colleague, Trilochan Sastry, showed that for just about every party, a greater percentage of candidates with a serious criminal record win compared to those without any such record. Why is this?
JSC: Why do people vote for criminal candidates? One reason is that they are Robin Hoods, who rob the rich and give to the poor. They also compensate for the state’s failure. If I have a grievance against you, I can go to court, but it will take years to resolve the issue in my favour. But if I go to a local strongman, he will solve my problem in two days. The strongman is seen to render a service which the state should have.