Sandeep Sahu

The setting aside of the election of Jogesh Kumar Singh of the Congress as the Sundargarh MLA by the Orissa High Court on Tuesday has brought into sharp focus an issue that has not been adequately debated in public discourse: the filing of false affidavits by candidates at the time of elections.

Singh has been found guilty of furnishing a false caste certificate to claim he belonged to the Bhuyan caste to be eligible to contest as a candidate in the Sundargarh Assembly constituency, which is reserved for scheduled tribes (STs). [He was found to be a Khandayat Bhuyan, which does not belong to the ST category). But candidates have been known to file false information on a variety of other attributes as well like their income, their educational, marital and health status, date of birth, election expenses and even their parents (in the case of Kendrapara MLA Kishor Tarai).

Given the number of such cases that have ended up in the courts in recent memory, it would not be very unreasonable to say one in every three or four election affidavits filed by candidates either contains false information or conceals information. And it is not as if the malaise is confined to any particular party. The list of those who have been accused of filing false affidavits in recent times includes candidates from Congress (Jogesh Singh and Taraparasad Bahinipati), BJD (former minister Sanjay Dasburma and Kishor Tarai) and BJP (Union minister Jual Oram). Suspended BJD MP Baijayant Panda too has been accused by the BJD of concealing information regarding his earnings from IMFA, the family firm of which he was the vice chairman during the period in question.

Nor have only minor players been in the dock on such charges. The list of ‘accused’ includes the names of such illustrious leaders like Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who has been charged with filing false information on his election expenses in the 2014 election and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has been accused in the past of having shown a false residential address to claim domicile status in Assam to become eligible to contest Rajya Sabha elections from that state.

Even allowing for the fact that some of these charges may not be based on facts and have been raised mainly to embarrass them= candidates by political rivals, such instances have been far too many for comfort. Part of the reason for the spurt in such cases may be the fact that unlike in the past, the affidavits filed by candidates during elections are now available at the mere click of a button for anyone interested. Besides, organizations like Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) have been constantly monitoring the affidavits, analyzing them and sharing their findings in the public domain through the media.

Discussions on electoral reforms have primarily centred on things like funding of political parties and the criminal antecedents of candidates while the issue of false affidavits has never really received the attention it deserves from the policy makers. It is possible that political parties are not keen on debating the issue – just as they are not too keen on other aspects like their funding and political criminals contesting elections - because the present arrangement suits all of them fine. But if the sanctity of democratic elections is to be upheld and the electoral process cleansed of malfeasance, this issue has to take centre stage. The initiative for this has to come from civil society since it is futile to expect political parties to take them up with any seriousness.

One of the things that needs to be debated is whether there really is a need for so much of paper work in the form of filing a plethora of affidavits by candidates, which opens up the possibilities of falsification of information, sometime inadvertently because a lot of the paper work is not done by the candidate himself and is outsourced to someone instead.

Secondly, it should also be debated whether false affidavits should just result in the setting aside of the particular election in question – as is the system right now – or should result in harsher punishment as in the case of conviction in criminal cases, which disqualifies the candidate for future elections too.

There is need for a threadbare, countryside discussion on these issues to arrive at a consensus and then placing of the findings before the Election Commission (EC) to take a call on them. If needed, the Supreme Court too must be approached for an appropriate ruling because the issue is too serious to be left to politicians.