New Delhi: The Supreme Court (SC) ruled on Friday that politicians who conceal information in their nomination papers would be barred from contesting elections—another verdict by the apex court aimed at cleaning up electoral politics in the country.
The ruling came in response to a public interest litigation (PIL), filed by civil rights group Resurgence India, seeking the disqualification of candidates who conceal vital information, such as their financial assets or past convictions by a court of law, in their election nomination papers and related documents.
Delivering the judgement, Chief Justice P. Sathasivam said voters have the “elementary right to know” the antecedents of candidates contesting an election.
A “universally recognized” right, it flows from the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression, he said.
The apex court empowered election-returning officers to reject nomination papers that seek to conceal critical information. The candidate will be given reminders to furnish any missing information before they are disqualified.
The court, however, directed that the power to reject a candidate’s nomination be “sparingly exercised” so as not to defeat the purpose of justice.
Friday’s ruling follows a series of decisions by the apex court that have had an impact on electoral politics.
On 10 July, the apex court barred convicted lawmakers from continuing in Parliament or state assemblies. On 5 September, it rejected an appeal filed by the central government seeking a review of the ruling.
In another significant ruling, the court also barred politicians who are in custody or undergoing imprisonment from contesting elections. A review petition filed against this decision was admitted by the court on 5 September.
The government opposed the petition seeking disqualification of politicians for concealing information, saying in an earlier hearing that such a move would be like a “death penalty” for candidates.
“We have not seen the judgment yet, so it will be too early to respond, but we do feel that no one should give any wrong information while filing affidavits,” Meem Afzal, a Congress spokesperson, said.
“I have not seen the order. I will be able to comment only after I go through it,” Ravi Shankar Prasad, senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, said.
A. Mariarputham, a senior government advocate, had argued that if the petition was upheld, concealment of information would lead to disqualification whereas perjury would only result in prosecution without affecting the candidacy.
Provisions of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, punish only those who make false statements on their affidavits, but lay down no penal provision for concealing information. Perjury is punishable with imprisonment or a fine.
In the absence of penal provisions for filing incomplete affidavits, it had become a common practice for candidates to submit affidavits without disclosing information like past criminal convictions and educational qualifications, the petitioners argued.
The PIL was based on a review of more than 7,000 affidavits and nomination papers filed by candidates before the Punjab assembly elections in 2007, said lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who represented the petitioners.
Bhushan also produced a blank affidavit submitted by a candidate who, Chief Justice Sathasivam noted, had not even mentioned his name on the document.
The PIL sought an interpretation that not disclosing information is equivalent to not having filed the affidavit, a mandatory requirement for contesting elections.
The apex court has directed the candidates “not to leave particulars blank” and use phrases such as “not applicable”. The court had earlier noted that there may be genuine instances where “the candidate may not know” some information and was unable to fill that data.
Meenakshi Arora, counsel for the Election Commission of India, had submitted in court that candidates are given opportunities to fill information that they may have left out or did not possess earlier. The Election Commission had also submitted that as per its directives, candidates must compulsorily file all information, even “not applicable” or “Nil”, but cannot leave columns blank.
“The court has clarified that there can be no prosecution of the candidates whose nomination is rejected on account of incomplete information,” Arora said.
Such prosecution would amount to “double jeopardy” or multiple punishments for the same action.
Anuja and Gyan Prakash contributed to this story.