Rediff.com's Vicky Nanjappa spoke to Professor Trilochan Sastry, who heads Karnataka Election Watch, a non-political, non-partisan citizen initiative, which is part of the nation-wide effort coordinated by the Association for Democratic Reforms to discuss the phenomnon of criminal candidates. Professor Sastry, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi, is a professor at the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore.
Are you happy with the way things have gone so far? How has the reaction to your report on the 2008 poll been?
That is not for me to say. You should tell me the reaction from the general public. However, I would like to add that the number of candidates in Karnataka with a criminal background has come down by five per cent when compared to the 2004 election.
Is that a very encouraging figure?
The numbers sure are down. But take a look at those candidates who have committed serious offences, such as murder. That number is down by 50 per cent and that is encouraging.
However, we notice that (while) third degree crimes among candidates have come down drastically, the worrying factor is that white collared crimes are on the rise.
What are you doing to sort out this problem?
We will take up the matter with the income tax department and then go to the respective state Lokayuktas. We also plan to keep both the governor and the Election Commission of India in the loop. Finally, we will approach the police.
There are candidates with criminal backgrounds in previous elections, but by the time of the next election they have a clean slate. We would like to know from the police on what basis the charges were dropped. In case the charges have not dropped, then we find out as to why the candidate has not declared it in his affidavit. If there are such discrepancies we will report it to court and seek the rejection of the candidate.
Which state have you found to be the worst in terms of candidates and their background? Which states did you find the best?
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are the worst. We have worked there for four months and published a detailed report on Bihar. Thanks to the media and the pressure exerted by them, Chief Minister Nitesh Kumar was forced to declare publicly that no candidate with a criminal background would be inducted into the ministry.
Kerala, Tripura, and Himachal Pradesh have been the best as candidates have a clean record.
Do you see a decline in the number of tainted candidates across the country?
Yes, there is a conscious effort by parties to reduce the number of candidates.
You say that parties have been making a conscious effort to reduce the number of tainted candidates. Are all parties thinking alike?
It is only the national parties. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha L K Advani may seem indifferent to the problem, but somewhere within, they too want the scenario to change and have only clean candidates.
During the course of my interaction with national parties, I realise that they are amenable to such reports and gradually they will be a change. By gradually I mean in the next 20 years.
Regional parties are the problem. It is a completely undemocratic set-up and on many occasions, it is a one leader party. Most of their leaders have been implicated in some scam or the other. When the problem is right at the top, there is very little we can expect and it is very unlikely that things will change.
Do we have the required laws to deal with this problem?
I don't think so. We need laws which should ensure that leaders are more transparent. More importantly there has to be openness about conflict of interests.
Tell us something about your future plans.
We are gearing up for the Chhattisgarh election and also the Lok Sabha election in 2009. We will activate our network countrywide and also have a national conference before getting on to the job.
What more can we expect in your future reports?
We now have the additional advantage of knowing the IT returns filed by political parties. In future assignments we intend publicising these returns. Moreover, we will get the election expenses of political parties and declare it to the public. We will then have to compare it with the IT returns and in case of discrepancies; we will go to court.
Are you satisfied?
To an extent, yes. But nothing is possible without the support of the media. I fail to understand why a cricket match gets more prominence over a report talking about people who will rule the country. More media participation across the country is the need of the hour.
While classifying candidates with criminal backgrounds, you also include names of those who have been booked for staging dharnas or participating in a strike. These are two essentials of a democracy. Are you not being unfair?
Let us not forget that it is these people who make the laws. The Indian Penal Code clearly states holding strikes and disrupting public life is an offence. This being the case, where is the need to crib? Remember, a person who has been booked for such acts cannot get a government job unless he is absolved of all charges. But with the same charges he can become chief minister. Where is the justification?
Finally, how has the reaction from the public been?
The middle class is a complete let down. They never bother. The difference is being made by the rural folk. They are slowly becoming aware of the problem. In Himachal Pradesh, a candidate lost because the public worked relentlessly to tell everyone that he had a criminal background.