When Nitish Kumar , immediately after being sworn in as chief minister of Bihar in November 2005, announced that he would not include anyone with criminal charges against him in his Cabinet, no one was more pleased than Trilochan Sastry. It meant his team's advocacy campaign against the criminalisation of politics was finally having some effect.
It was at the initiative of Sastry, 52, currently a professor at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, that Election Watch, a nationwide movement of non-governmental organisations (NGO) - 1,200 at last count - began in 2002. It tracks those who contest Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, and releases reports before elections detailing their criminal records if any, their assets, liabilities and educational qualifications, so that voters can make informed choices. "Our reports are received seriously and debated, and the movement itself has seen enthusiastic participation by people and organisations everywhere," says Sastry.
Today, no doubt, candidates are required to file these details with the Election Commission for their nominations to be accepted. But few are aware that it was following a public interest litigation filed by Sastry's own NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), that the Supreme Court, in a 2003 judgement, made such disclosure compulsory.
Election law only bars those convicted from contesting, but those facing criminal charges, no matter how heinous, face no such impediment. Thus, it is only by raising awareness that such people can be defeated in elections and kept out of elected bodies. Though criminals still keep getting elected, Sastry maintains that those charged with serious crimes are fewer than before.
Before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, for instance, Election Watch published a 'top 20 list' of those facing charges for the most serious crimes. When the results came, of the 20 named, 17 - including infamous names such as Pappu Yadav, Atiq Ahmed and Mukhtar Ansari - had lost.
Political parties are themselves becoming less brazen about fielding criminals - both Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Lok Sabha Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj of the BJP have at least called for a consensus on barring those with criminal pasts from contesting.
ADR (www.adrindia. org) also analyses the election expenditure declared by candidates, as well as the performance of Assembly and Lok Sabha members on select parameters. It is funded by a host of both global and local donors, including the Ford Foundation and the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust. "The work Election Watch is doing is commendable and a hopeful effort, however small it may be, towards the almost impossible task of preserving democracy in this country," says Justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, former chief justice of India.