AA Edit | Voters have a right to know leaders’ assets; probe spikes

The Asian Age.

Opinion, Edit

Recent ruling allows candidates to omit minor movable assets in filings, focusing on significant holdings to assess wealth accumulation

A recent Supreme Court decision holding that a candidate need not declare every item of movable property in his affidavit has done away with that opportunity even if it has offered the Election Commission of India and Parliament an opportunity to rework the entire scheme of asset declaration so as to make it more effective. (Image: AP)

The mandatory filing of assets of a candidate or of his dependent family members was considered a critical piece of information that would help the voter decide on his choice to a legislative Assembly or Parliament. A recent Supreme Court decision holding that a candidate need not declare every item of movable property in his affidavit has done away with that opportunity even if it has offered the Election Commission of India and Parliament an opportunity to rework the entire scheme of asset declaration so as to make it more effective.

As per the court’s decision, the details of the movable assets such as clothing, shoes, crockery, stationery and 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”, need not be disclosed. This, in a way, suggests that the focus should be on assets which really reflect the ways in which they have been accumulated by the candidate. By taking such a position, the apex court has set aside the high court order that stripped an independent MLA of Arunachal Pradesh of his position for his failure to declare the possession of such movable properties by a close relative.

While insisting that candidates also have the right to privacy, the court, however, clarified that the finding was not to be treated as a precedent as it was based only on the facts and circumstances of the case.

The affidavit on assets, which also includes details on income tax returns for previous years, in the normal course, throws light on the life of a candidate, as also the progress or otherwise of the status of his accumulated wealth. An honest declaration of such details before the electorate is a precondition for a candidate to approach them for votes. This becomes all the more useful when the candidate contests for a second time, since they get a chance to compare the value of assets and ask for a clarification in case of anomaly.

The direction of the Election Commission to the Central Board of Direct Taxes to check if there are anomalies in the affidavits submitted by a Union minister becomes pertinent in this context. The Commission’s action has come on the petition by a lawyer pointing out that the income of the minister, who is celebrated as a billionaire with business interests in several areas, has gone down from a few crores to a few hundreds in a span of four years. The truth of such declarations also needs to be investigated.

The Prevention of Corruption Act makes every public servant accountable for their assets and makes it a criminal offence if these are disproportionate to their known sources of income. Reports from various parts of the country suggest that several candidates belonging to different parties have declared a huge spurt in assets compared with what was declared in their affidavits during the previous election.
There has to be a joint mechanism of the Election Commission, the income tax department and anti-corruption investigating agency to verify the declarations and proceed legally if there is a discrepancy. Minor details, as the court suggested, are not the point which the voter should be worried about.

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