Source: 
Outlook
https://www.outlookindia.com/elections/a-voters-right-to-know-is-it-absolute
Author: 
Anisha Reddy
Date: 
16.04.2024
City: 

Does the voter’s right to know come with limitations? Recent political developments and legal developments might have the answer.

Scuba divers swim deep into the Arabian Sea to display a placard with slogans like ‘voting is an important right guaranteed by the Constitution’, ‘voting is our right’, and ‘protect the sanctity of voting’. Some adorn roller skates to distribute such pamphlets. Paintings, comics, dance, music, reels, memes…the list of how voter awareness is created in India through creative means is endless, especially with the rise in use of social media. But when it comes to voters and voting rights in India, how much information are they allowed to know about who they are voting for?

The right to vote has been held to be a “statutory right“ by the Supreme Court and not a fundamental right in multiple judgements. Apart from the right to vote, a voter in India has the right to know information, including criminal past and other antecedents, about candidates who want to be their representatives. The top court too has reiterated in subsequent judgments that the voter has a fundamental right to know the candidates’ background under Article 19 (right to freedom of speech and expression) of our Constitution.

But is the voter’s right to know absolute?

Recent political developments might have the answer.

In a historic judgment in February, a five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the electoral bonds scheme as unconstitutional, upholding the voter’s right to information about who is funding political parties and their election campaigns.

The judgment noted that “the right to information of the voter includes the right to information of financial contributions to a political party because of the influence of money in electoral politics (through electoral outcomes) and governmental decisions (through a seat at the table and quid pro quo arrangements between the contributor and the political party).”

Civil society organisations and activists alike welcomed the progressive reading of the right to information by the top court. Members of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) reaffirmed the voter’s Right to Know as “a very sturdy right which will not only help citizens make an informed choice but it will also help and encourage voters to audit, question, review and seek direct answers from the government and political parties for their actions and inaction.”

However, barely two months after this watershed judgment, the top court on Wednesday ruled that voters do not have an absolute right to know all details of a candidate’s private life, and candidates are not required to disclose every item of moveable property they own, unless its value amounts to a “sizable asset”.

“It is not necessary that a candidate declare every item of moveable property that he or his dependent family members owns such as clothing, shoes, crockery, stationery, furniture etc., unless the same is of such value as to constitute a sizeable asset in itself or reflect upon his candidature in terms of his lifestyle and require to be disclosed", the top court observed.

The Supreme Court’s observation came as it upheld the election of Independent MLA Karikho Kri from Tezu in the 2019 Arunachal Pradesh Assembly election, setting aside the Gauhati High Court order that had declared his election as null and void.

The High Court had declared his election null and void while hearing a petition filed by Congress candidate Nuney Tayang, challenging the declaration of the 2019 Assembly election result. Kri was accused of not disclosing the ownership of certain vehicles, not submitting a ‘no dues certificate’ in the context of electricity and water charges of his government accommodation, and not disclosing dues of municipal and property taxes.

The top court held that the candidate’s ‘right to privacy’ would still survive as regards matters which are of no concern to the voter or are irrelevant to his candidature for public office.

But when is a ‘sizeable asset’ considered ‘enough’ that it should be disclosed by the candidate? If a candidate and his family own several high-priced watches aggregating to a large monetary value, the court said, they would constitute “high value” assets and reflect a “lavish lifestyle”, and suppressing such information would amount to “undue influence”. “However, if a candidate and his family members each own a simple watch, which is not highly priced, suppression of the value of such watches may not amount to a defect at all,” the court added.

But the court also reiterated that ‘there is no hard and fast rule on what assets need to be declared’.

Several MPs have reported a huge spike in their assets recently compared with what was declared in their affidavits in the previous election. For example, BJP MP Tejasvi Surya who filed his nomination from Bangalore South on April 4 declared total assets of Rs 4.10 crore, compared to Rs 13.46 lakh in the 2019 elections, according to a report by Indian Express. Similarly, declared assets of Congress MP Suresh, brother of Deputy Chief Minister and Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president D K Shivakumar, saw a 75 per cent increase in the last five years, from Rs 338.87 crore in 2019 to Rs 593.04 crore in 2024.

However, the court did rule that the judgment shouldn’t be seen as a precedent for other cases and that it should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. But at a time when money and muscle power play a significant role in our electoral system, how will this judgment impact the voter’s right to know ahead of the general elections?

© Association for Democratic Reforms
Privacy And Terms Of Use
Donation Payment Method