Sunday, June 3, 2007

Commentary: Voters reject politics of crime and money

: Voters reject politics of crime and money

Guest Commentary
Elections to the 403 seats of India's Uttar Pradesh State Assembly were completed this month after seven phases of voting. In the sweltering heat of the Gangetic heartland, the elections -- after three consecutive hung assemblies -- generated enough heat to keep the country on its toes for two and a half months. Uttar Pradesh is the most populous state in the country with an approximate population of 170 million and an electorate of about 114 million. UP is also one of the most underdeveloped states, with a high crime rate and abysmally low human development index. For the last 15 years, the state has been under several different political alliances with none of them being able to complete their term. In recent years there have been significant developments in Indian democracy, in terms of civil society participation in the electoral process. Disclosure laws such as affidavits along with nomination papers detailing criminal antecedents, assets, liability, and education of candidates, the Right to Information Act, etc. have made it possible for citizens to seek accountable governance from their elected representatives. Since the path-breaking Supreme Court judgment of 2002 ensuring the right of the voter to know the background of the candidate, civil society organizations like the Association for Democratic Reforms have been active in creating "citizens' election watch" bodies in various states to aid the citizen voter in making an informed choice. After a long struggle, in the Bihar assembly elections of 2005, the work of the citizens' election watch bore some success. Although about 49 percent of the candidates had pending criminal cases, the chief minister elect announced that anyone with even a single criminal case pending would not get a seat in the Cabinet. This was not only a triumph of citizens' vigilance, but also a wake up call for political parties putting forward such candidates. In the UP election, 882 candidates (about 15 percent) had pending criminal cases against them -- 97 were accused of murder, 204 of attempted murder, 142 of cheating, 63 of armed robbery and 51 of kidnapping. This reflects the political parties' belief that having pending criminal cases adds to the voter appeal of candidates. The analysis of the final election results, however throws some surprises. Of those elected, 155 (38 percent) faced criminal charges. Out of these, 91 were charged with heinous crimes which, if convicted, would fetch them more than five years in prison. During the election it seemed that putting up such candidates reflected political parties' desperation to win, but the results showed a contrary trend. The majority of winners were not those charged with crimes. This time round, the UP voters rejected the tainted ones by voting decisively in favor of clean candidates! This calls for a strategic debate in the think tanks of political parties for a review of the criteria constituting voter appeal. On the other hand, some of the big names in UP's crime world made it into the august house. The Bahujan Samaj Party, or BSP, under the leadership of Mayawati won 206 seats out of 402. When Mayawati selected her Cabinet this is what came out: 22 out of 41 ministers had pending criminal cases against them, 16 for heinous crimes that would fetch them more than two years of imprisonment if convicted; 10 out of 16 Cabinet ministers had pending criminal cases against them, 8 for heinous crimes; 12 out of 25 ministers of state had pending cases against them, 8 for heinous crimes. In conclusion, here are some of the trends that reflect the maturing of the Indian electorate: Political parties need to reflect on their strategies, and given the strong demand for clean candidates, they need to back up the credibility of candidates by vouching for the authenticity of their affidavits. Despite being a caste-ridden society, UP has voted decisively, breaking down all caste arithmetic. Criminalization, use of black money, and empty slogans have not paid dividends. The voice of the voter has prevailed. -- (Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi is founder of the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights. He is a human rights activist engaged primarily in defending the rights of India's marginalized untouchable caste. ©Copyright Lenin Raghuvanshi.)

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