Voters must have 'proper information' about criminal antecedents of candidates: SC

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New Delhi : The Supreme Court on Tuesday favoured "proper" dissemination of information about criminal antecedents, if any, of the candidates being fielded by the political parties to contest elections to Parliament or state assemblies, so that voters can make a informed choice while exercising their franchise.

"Right to information (about the criminal antecedents of the candidates) means right to proper information," said Chief Justice Dipak Misra, heading the five-judge constitution bench as it reserved its verdict on a plea by NGO Public Interest Foundation seeking to bar people from electoral politics against whom charges have been framed by trial courts for heinous offences.

"We can't make a law or do indirectly what we can't do directly. We will only see if we can do anything on disclosure (of criminal antecedents). We will see if we can add to the disclosure so that people make a well-informed choice at polling booth. Let people judge," said Chief Justice Misra.

Making it clear that they would not issue any direction to the Centre for enacting a law to bar from the electoral arena the people charged with heinous crimes, the constitution bench said that the focus should be on the dissemination of information about the criminal antecedents of the candidates enabling voters to make an informed choice.

Besides Chief Justice Misra, other judges on the constitution bench are Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman, Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Indu Malhotra.

The court said this as Attorney General K.K. Venugopal reiterated the Central government's position that law making was within the exclusive domain of the legislature and "what court can't do directly (asking legislature to enact a law), it can't do indirectly."

The Attorney General said this as in the last hearing of the matter on August 21, the top court had asked the government if it could direct the Election Commission to include in the symbol order a clause that a political party is liable to lose its recognition if it fields candidates with criminal antecedents.

Summing up the submission by the AG, Justice Nariman said that according to AG, the court cannot add or subtract any new qualification or disqualification to what is already contemplated in the Constitution or the statute (Representation of People Act).

As the hearing today got focused on making voters sufficiently informed about the criminal antecedents of the candidate, the court also sought to know the possibility of people being made aware of the criminal antecedents, if any, of the candidates at a pre-nomination stage.

"We want to put it at the stage of pre-nomination," said CJI Misra, also observing if political parties should themselves disclose that the candidate they have selected faces criminal charges.

"Why not party make public that the candidate fielded by it suffers from such charges," observed CJI.

The court's observation came as senior counsel Meenakshi Arora appearing for the Election Commission said that the disclosure of the criminal cases is made only at the time of nomination and it leaves public little time to know about it.

She said that the Election Commission had made the recommendation to eject a candidate from electoral fray after the framing of charges way back in 1997, which was reiterated in 1999 and subsequently, but nothing moved.

Justice Chandrachud disagreed with senior counsel Krishnan Venugopal, saying that people preferred voting candidate with criminal background because they feel that such a representative will do something by bending laws and help them in distress situation.

"It is not necessary that they want to vote for such a candidate," observed Justice Chandrachud.

Another counsel Gopal Shankaranarayanan told the court that a candidate with criminal background should disclose in his every publicity material that he would use or circulate during electioneering.