From Grass-root Support To The Internet, Efforts Are On To Educate Citizens (...continued)
Financial Express, 5 April 2004
By Sucheta Dalal
Andhra Pradesh Election Watch and Lok Satta: This is arguably the most organised election effort by NGOs in the country. It stepped into high gear on March 20, 2004 by releasing the names of 51 prospective candidates who have an established record of grave criminal charges. These names cut across regional and party lines. The effort is led by Jayaprakash Narayan, a former IAS officer and national convener of Lok Satta. In a mailer to other activists, Mr Narayan says: “We felt that there is a pressing need to collect, compile and preserve all information on candidates from across the country in a single place, so that they can be easily accessed at the click of a mouse”. This took the form of a national website (indiaelectionwatch.com) which promises to collate affidavits of election candidates and updates inputs from the public on a 24 hour basis until the elections. Once the elections are over, the information would be catalogued and preserved on the site and available for mobilising public opinion and research. Lok Satta conducted a survey of AP candidates and another to gauge public opinion on criminalisation, election expenditure and other related issues.
The survey saw participation from approximately 2,16,000 people of which an overwhelming majority, predictably enough, indicated their preference for candidates. The findings were released on March 17. Mr Narayan says that the positive outcome from Election Watch is that political parties are now wary of giving tickets to dubious new candidates, but it has yet to affect established leaders with similar records.
Orissa Election Watch: This was started by nearly 80 rural NGOs in Orissa. Apart from scrutinising the credentials of candidates, they plan to question them on their strategy for development. Some, such as the Orissa Jungle Manch (OJM), which is an apex body of forest societies covering 15 districts, will also campaign to elect candidates who are forest friendly.
Gujarat Election Watch: Gujarat has a track record of having conducted an Election Watch exercise during the assembly elections. Narendra Modi’s thumping victory has not dampened their enthusiasm. The facts collated by them during the recent assembly elections shows that nearly 140 candidates who aspired to become members of the legislative assembly had criminal records. Of these, 34 belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party and 29 to the Congress. Of them, 9 were booked for murder or attempted murder, 3 for rape and kidnapping and 26 for violent crime such as dacoity, rioting, arson and jail break. Another 10 were involved in financial scams. In Gujarat, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) which pioneered Election Watch, also collected information from the public by issuing newspaper advertisements. This year, the effort led by Justice BJ Divan (retd), has started by writing to all political parties with a request to field clean candidates. This will be followed up by the usual exercise of collating and disseminating information from affidavits and elsewhere.
Kerala Election Watch: This watchdog body is headed by MNV Nair, a former additional chief secretary of the state. Apart from collating information on candidates, it will establish facilities in Thiruvananthapuram to receive complaints of election malpractices from the public. After making further inquiries, it will refer them to constitutional authorities for action. Constituency-level committees in each of the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies are being set up to monitor the campaign. A website will keep the public posted on its activities and a helpline is providing telephonic information on all election related issues.
Delhi Election Watch: This is a powerful and well funded coalition of 22 NGOs and organisations. They include representatives from ADR, Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development, Current Opinion and Future Trends, Common Cause, Consumer Alert, CHARKHA, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Centre for Media Studies, Development Alternatives, Lok Satta, Lok Sevak Sangh, Manushi, Movement for Good Governance, National Campaign for India, National Foundation for India, Parivartan, People’s Action, People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Participatory Research In Asia, Transparency International India, Voluntary Action Network India, Voters Forum, and National Campaign for Electoral Reforms. This influential network was able to put together a group of dedicated volunteers who fanned out across Delhi to monitor the election process and to inform voters about submissions made by the candidates. The work that was started during the assembly elections will be continued during the Lok Sabha elections, probably with greater momentum.
Maharashtra Election Watch: This is a first time effort by ADR and Action for Governance and Networking for India (AGNI) that has already started the process of collecting affidavits filed by candidates across the country. They hope to hold meetings across the state to mobilise public opinion against candidates with a criminal past.
Madhya Pradesh Election Watch: This is a grass-root effort that began during the last state assembly elections. The Election Watch committee discovered that a single candidate contesting the last assembly elections had 63 criminal charges filed against him including murder, dacoity and singing obscene songs. Overall, 152 candidates had criminal records. But the more important role played by Election Watch workers was in countering misinformation by political parties about the use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM). Rakesh Ranjan of MP Election Watch says that one political party told villagers to “press the first button to start the machine” while another said that pressing some buttons was giving people a “jhatka” (electric shock). This time too, educating people about the use of EVMs will form a big part of their work, along with collect-ing affidavits and examining the criminal records of candidates.
Chhattisgarh Election Watch: This is a citizen’s initiative and a collective effort by NGOs who came together to increase voter awareness during the assembly elections. Their volunteers fanned the state to collect affidavits but had a hard time accessing information due to stone walling and non-cooperation by election officers. This time round, explicit orders from the CEC to hand over copies to Election Watch and the availability of affidavits on the EC website is expected to further the Chhattisgarh effort at summarising and disseminating information.
Rajasthan Election Watch: This is a joint effort of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, PUCL and their networks with support from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. Started during the assembly elections, the volunteers again struggled to persuade election officers to release the affidavits filed by candidates. The Rajasthan Election Watch disseminates information through a colourful medley of songs, music, plays and puppet shows which ask people to choose their representatives with care. Last time, they even used the high profile Pushkar mela to spread the message. A major achievement was the correction of 7 lakh entries to the voter list by using gram sabhas to have electoral rolls read out in public and correct entries based on the resolutions passed. Backed by its successful foray during the assembly elections and increased support from the EC, the Rajasthan Election Watch expects to reach out to a wider section of the population this time.
Karnataka Election Watch: The Karnataka Election Watch committee announced its plans on March 6. While it is gearing up to collect affidavits and disseminate information, it has started by putting out a list of frequently asked questions for voters, as well as the addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses where ordinary citizens can check their names on the voting list or report instances of violation of the election code by candidates.
While Election Watch is a well intended and much need effort, its success will differ widely from one state to another based on its leadership. Those working through grass-root NGOs and through an army of volunteers will be more successful in disseminating their message during the Lok Sabha elections as well. Others may remain restricted to small urban groups, who will collate and analyse affidavits and hope that the internet will help their cause.