Confirming public perception that politics is the most lucrative and completely unregulated business in the country, many a candidate contesting the Karnataka assembly elections has filed sworn affidavits affirming that they own mind-boggling assets.

Even those who were not in power in the last five or ten years have revealed spectacular growth in their incomes, adducing to the fact that once you are in politics the wealth graph can only keep going up.

Among senior politicians, Congress minister DK Shivakumar, who has filed his nomination papers from Kanakapura, submitted a 94-page affidavit about his assets, liabilities and two cases, which include recent charges of evading income tax, giving false information and being involved in economic offences.

Shivakumar, who describes himself as an “educationist and social worker,” has declared a personal wealth of Rs 619.79 crore – an increase of 188% since the 2013 elections when he had declared Rs 215.06 crore against his name. His wife, who is described as a “housewife and landlord” and three dependent children have a further wealth of Rs 221.58 crore, which is an increase of 472% since last election. The energy minister in the Siddaramaiah government says the family has total liabilities of Rs 228.25 crore.

Those who have known Shivakumar from his humble beginnings in Kanakapura taluk, say that until he entered politics in mid-1980s, he helped the family by supplying milk from home dairy and running a tent cinema. He has won five assembly elections as a Congress member and been a minister several times.

Whether in or out of power, he has used his shrewd business acumen to get into granite quarrying, iron ore export, land deals, education and real estate business among others. He also allegedly owns a number of benami properties. The Income Tax department conducted raids on him and his family members about six months ago, but the outcome is still not known.

While chief minister Siddaramaiah revealed assets worth a modest Rs 18.55 crore as against Rs 7.65 crore in 2013, his son, S Yatheendra, who is contesting for the first time from Varuna, declared assets worth Rs 23.80 crore and liabilities of Rs 8.77 crore.

Among the other chief ministerial aspirants, JD(S)’s HD Kumaraswamy declared Rs 167.14 crore worth of assets as against Rs 137.77 crore five years ago. BJP’s BS Yeddyurappa declared assets worth Rs 6.55 crore, showing a marginal increase of Rs 72 lakh over the last election.

But, if the leaders claimed that they were only modestly rich, a number of aspiring legislators are not at all shy of declaring gargantuan wealth, unmindful of the eyebrows being raised.

Congress candidate MBT Nagaraj, who is contesting from Hosakote on the outskirts of Bengaluru, has declared assets worth Rs 1,015 crore, up from Rs 545 crore last time. Nagaraj, a close associate of Siddaramaiah, claims that he is a “real estate businessman.” JD(S)’ Iqbal Huttur, a mining contractor, contesting for the first time from Bellary city, has declared assets worth Rs 590 crore. Another mining baron Anand Singh, contesting on behalf of Congress has declared assets worth Rs 125 crore.

It is to be noted that the candidates’ declaring of assets and liabilities, educational qualification and criminal cases being faced by them through affidavits was made mandatory only in May 2002 following a direction from the Supreme Court.

The returning officer has the power to reject the nomination papers if any of the affidavits are found to be containing false or inadequate information, but the gap between the last day of nominations and the scrutiny is so little that he hardly has any time go through all of them. Hence, the rejection of nominations at this stage is extremely rare and in case of any doubts, the candidates can be taken to court only after the results.

Besides, more crucially, as per existing law, under Section 125A of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), the punishment for filing of a false affidavit is only six months of imprisonment or fine or both.

The Law Commission headed by retired Supreme Court judge AP Shah had informed the Supreme Court – after the court had sought its opinion – that the filing of false affidavit was “rampant” and “it can only be curbed if the punishment for the offence is enhanced to two years’ prison term from the present six months and the person disqualified from (future) elections.”

Intermittently, there have been small efforts made by the Election Commission and the Income Tax department to tackle the menace of unaccounted money influencing the electoral outcome.

Before the 2010 Bihar assembly elections, the Election Commission wrote to the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) to match the statements of assets and liabilities filed by all candidates with their income tax returns. Grumbling about the volume of work involved, all that the CBDT came up with was 10 cases of “wrong PAN numbers being used by candidates.”

In January 2014, the Election Commission had organised another joint meeting with CBDT where it was decided that the EC would sort out the affidavits into different categories and present CBDT with material in a format which would be easy to scrutinise. It is almost four years since the last Lok Sabha elections and whether anything has come out of that exercise is not known.

The Election Commission had also recommended to the Centre in February 2011 to amend Section 125A of the RPA and enhance punishment for filing false affidavits to two years imprisonment “which is the minimum sentence required for attracting disqualification under Section 8A of the electoral Act.” Both the then UPA and the present NDA governments have remained silent regarding EC’s recommendation.

The Supreme Court is currently seized of a number of PILs filed by voluntary organisations like Association for Democratic Reforms and the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties urging automatic disqualification of candidates with criminal records, enhancement of punishment for filing false affidavits and so on. As late as September 7, 2017, the Election Commission reiterated its stand before the court that filing of false affidavits should be made grounds for disqualification.

As there is little chance of politicians acting in public interest, the only hope lies with the Supreme Court.

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