Politicians, their spouses and dependents would now have to declare their sources of income, along with their assets, for contesting elections, the Supreme Court ruled today.
In a landmark judgement, the apex court passed a slew of measures to reform the electoral process, observing that the "purity" of electoral process was fundamental to the "survival of a healthy democracy".
It asked the Centre to put in place a mechanism to periodically collect data of the elected representatives, their spouses and dependents to examine whether there was any "disproportionate increase" in their assets and recommend appropriate action in such cases.
The top court also said that as per the mechanism, details regarding disproportionate hike in the assets of elected representatives, their spouses and dependents should be placed before the "appropriate legislature" to consider the eligibility of such lawmakers to continue as members of Parliament and assemblies.
A bench comprising Justices J Chelameswar and S Abdul Nazeer said that non-disclosure of assets and the sources of income of the candidates and their "associates", which include their spouses and dependents, would constitute a "corrupt practice" under the provision of the Representation of People (RP) Act, 1951.
It said that "undue accretion of assets" of elected representatives and their associates was a matter which should "alarm the citizens and voters of any truly democratic society", as the electors have a fundamental right to know the relevant information about the candidates contesting polls.
"We direct that Rule 4A of the Rules (Conduct of Election Rules, 1961) and Form 26 appended to the Rules shall be suitably amended, requiring candidates and their associates (spouse and dependents) to declare their sources of income," the bench said in a 56-page judgement.
"We are also of the opinion the information regarding the sources of income of the legislators and their associates and candidates is relevant and legislators and candidates could be compelled even by subordinate legislation," it said.
The court's judgement was delivered on a petition filed by NGO, Lok Prahari, which was seeking creation of a permanent mechanism to investigate candidates whose assets have grown disproportionately during their tenure as MLAs or MPs and also a direction to the candidates contesting polls to disclose their sources of income.
Regarding the petitioner's demand for an investigation against certain elected representatives in this regard, the bench declined the prayer saying it would amount to "selective scrutiny" in the absence of any permanent mechanism for regular monitoring of the growth in their assets and it could lead to "political witch-hunting".
"If the nation believes that those who are elected to its legislative bodies ought not to take undue advantage of their election to the Legislature for accumulation of wealth by resorting to means, which are inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the Constitution and also the laws made by the legislature, appropriate prescriptions are required to be made for carrying out the purpose of the RP Act of 1951," the bench noted.
"The purpose of prescribing disqualifications is to preserve the purity of the electoral process," the court said, adding, "Purity of electoral process is fundamental to the survival of a healthy democracy".
"If left unattended it would inevitably lead to the destruction of democracy and pave the way for the rule of mafia. Democracies with higher levels of energy have already taken note of the problem and addressed it. Unfortunately, in our country, neither Parliament, nor the Election Commission of India paid any attention to the problem so far," it said.
The top court also said there was a need to make appropriate provision declaring that undue accretion of assets was a ground for disqualifying a legislator even without prosecuting him for offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
It said the Centre was "undoubtedly" competent to make such a stipulation by evolving appropriate rules declaring that undue accretion of assets would render an elected representative disqualified.
"Further, it would be equally competent for the Government of India to establish a permanent mechanism for monitoring the financial affairs of the legislators and their associates for periodically ascertaining the relevant facts. Because the establishment of such a permanent mechanism would be a necessary incident of the authority to declare a legislator 'disqualified'," the bench said.
The bench said that information regarding the sources of income of the candidates and their associates would certainly help the voter in making "an informed choice" of the candidate to represent the constituency.
"The citizen, the ultimate repository of sovereignty in a democracy, must have access to all information that enables critical audit of the performance of the state, its instrumentalities and their incumbent or aspiring public officials. It is only through access to such information that the citizen is enabled/empowered to make rational choices as regards those holding or aspiring to hold public offices, of the state," it said.
Dealing with the petitioner's prayer regarding amendment in the RP Act, 1951, the bench said it was a matter exclusively within the domain of Parliament and it was "well settled that no court could compel and no writ could be issued to compel any legislative body to make a law".
"It must be left to the wisdom of the legislature. Prayers 1(2) and 3 (in the petition), insofar as they seek directions in the nature of mandamus to consider amendment of the RP Act of 1951, cannot be granted," the bench said.
The bench also said that the state owed a constitutional obligation to the citizens of the country to ensure that there was "no concentration of wealth" to the common detriment and debilitation of democracy.