RECENTLY, the Secretary General of Awami League and LGRD Minister, Syed Ashraful Islam, stated that the affidavits submitted by candidates with their nomination papers have become instruments of character assassination of politicians. He also disclosed that the government is examining the relevant laws requiring disclosures. We are shocked by Mr. Islam’s statement as it clearly represents a surrender to our prevailing corrupt and criminalised political culture.
It may be recalled that in Union of India vs ADR [(2002)5ACC294], the Indian Supreme Court stated that: “Under our Constitution, Article 19(1)(a) provides for freedom of speech and expression. Voter’s speech or expression in case of election would include casting of vote, that is to say, voter speaks out or expresses by casting vote. For this purpose, information about the candidate to be selected is a must. Voter’s (little man – citizen’s) right to know antecedents including criminal past of his candidate contesting election for MP or MLA is much more fundamental and basic for survival of democracy. The little man may think over before making his choice of electing law-breakers as law-makers.” The uniqueness of fundamental rights is that they cannot normally be denied even by enacting legislation.
In PUCL vs Union of India [(2003)4ACC], the Indian Supreme Court further stated: “Survival of democracy depends upon free and fair election. It is true that elections are fought by political parties, yet election would be a farce if the voters are unaware of the antecedents of candidates contesting elections. Their decision to vote either in favour of A or B candidate would be without any basis. Such election would be neither free nor fair since for survival of true democracy the voter must be aware of the antecedents of his candidate.” The Court further said that “Disinformation, misinformation, non-information, all equally create an uninformed citizenry which would finally make democracy a mobocracy and a farce.” That is, the disclosure of antecedents of candidates is required to clean up the electoral system and make democracy effective.
Our High Court used similar arguments in Abdul Momen Chowdhury vs Bangladesh. The Court, in its judgment, required the candidates to disclose with their nomination papers, in the form of affidavits, their educational qualifications, profession, criminal records, their income and their dependents’ income, assets and liabilities. In addition, the Court directed the Election Commission to disseminate such information among the voters so that they are able to make informed decisions during elections.
Mr. Islam has perhaps forgotten that the demand for the disclosure of antecedents of candidates was first made by his own party. Awami League has also made repeated commitments to make candidates’ antecedents public, although those commitments were never kept. It may be recalled that on July 15, 2005, Sheikh Hasina, in a crowded news conference, on behalf of the 11-Party Alliance, announced: “Before withdrawing their nomination papers candidates must submit statements disclosing the wealth statements of them and their families and any interests they may have in the economic activities of the state … legal action must be taken against those who give false information to the Election Commission.”
Later, on November 22, 2005, the ‘Uniform Declaration,’ made on behalf of Awami League, the 11-Party Alliance, JSD and NAP at the grand gathering at Paltan Maidan, stated that “to eradicate corruption from all spheres of the state and society, the wealth statement of ministers, MPs, political leaders of all parties, public representatives and bureaucrats would be made public and they would be regularly monitored.”
Subsequently, in the election manifesto, popularly known as the ‘Dinbodolar Sanad’ (Charter for Change), published prior to the general elections of 2008, the present ruling party expressed its commitment twice to publish wealth statements of contesting candidates. Under the heading of ‘Eradication of Corruption,’ the election manifesto stated that “the powerful individuals must submit wealth statements every year.” Again, under the caption of ‘Good Governance,’ the election manifesto stated that “the wealth statement and sources of income of the prime minister, members of the cabinet, members of Parliaments and their families will be published annually.” That is, the government sought and received votes in 2008 on the basis of commitments to disclose the wealth statements of the elected officials each year. Even after the elections, the finance minister repeatedly made the same commitments, which were not kept. Subsequently, the finance minister disclosed his own wealth statement for the sake of his own credibility.
Mr. Islam must know that corruption necessarily means misuse of power, and is preventing us as a nation from reaching our potential. He must also be aware that in our country, corrupt individuals are often given shelter by political parties. Unfortunately, doing away with the requirement of submitting affidavits would amount to a blatant act of giving such shelter. Mr. Islam is known to be an honest politician and we are most surprised by his surrender to the corrupt and criminalised politics of our country.
We strongly feel that the affidavit can be an important instrument for cleaning our political arena. This would obviously require some changes in the instrument. For example, an additional column for disclosing private interests of candidates must be added in order to identify potential conflicts of interest. In addition, candidates must be required to disclose the value of their assets.
The requirement for submitting affidavits will take its real toll if the Election Commission decides to seriously scrutinise the instrument — an authority the Commission inherently possesses. However, the ugly side of the corrupt politics of our country is already visible from the information contained in the affidavits submitted, which must be the reason for this threat of doing away with the requirement.
For a long time, many fortune-seekers, including businessmen, have been entering politics to make a quick fortune. They have been engaging in ‘nomination trade,’ buying votes during elections to ‘capture’ political power and using that power to become richer. In this process, politics has largely turned into a profitable business, rather like a get-rich-quick scheme. Consequently, we now have the best democracy money can buy — a governance system which is bound to be anti-people and unsustainable.
It may be noted that these fortune-seekers are the ones who normally hide information in their affidavits. For example, the seven present and former MPs, who are now being investigated by the ACC, are reported to have concealed nearly Tk. 4,000 crore worth of assets in their affidavits. Since concealing information in affidavits makes an individual ineligible to be elected or remain an MP, a decision by the Commission to seriously scrutinise the affidavits would keep such fortune-seekers off our electoral arena, paving the way for cleaning up our politics.
A relevant question about Mr. Islam’s statement: who has really been assassinating whose character? Experiences show that politicians themselves have been assassinating their own characters. They have been regularly accusing each other of indulging in corruption and hooliganism, using most malicious and nasty language. They have even been assassinating the character of citizens. Recently, I myself was such a victim.
A few weeks ago, an MP, while giving a vote of thanks to the president for his speech before the Parliament, defamed me in quite an irreverent manner. He claimed that the Election Commission gave me Tk. 60 lac for research and that I neither did the research nor returned the money. He asked the ACC to investigate me, which I wholeheartedly welcome. However, his accusation is totally false and baseless — the Commission never gave me a penny for research. In addition, he raised some personal issues, which are also totally false. It should be noted that his is a blatant misuse of Parliamentary immunity and a clear of breach the privilege of the Parliament and Parliament members.
Finally, it may be recalled that some individuals close to the Four-party Alliance government unsuccessfully tried to reverse the judgment of the High Court requiring the disclosure of antecedents of candidates by filing an appeal, using fraudulent means, in the name of an imposter named Abu Safa. Indian politicians also failed to foil their Supreme Court judgment by enacting legislation. We hope that our ruling party will stay away from a similar misadventure, and steer us towards a cleaner electoral system and a more effective democracy that works for the people.
The writer is Secretary, SHUJAN–Citizens for Good Governance.
Published: The Daily Star, 12:00 am Saturday, March 29, 2014