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Non-profit organisation Association for Democratic Reforms on a mission to 'reduce money and muscle power in political system and make political parties more accountable, transparent'.

When the Supreme Court decided to scrap thecontroversial Electoral Bond Scheme of the Narendra Modi government earlier this month, there was much cheering and chest-thumping among India’s various opposition parties. But one organisation, at the heart of it all, simply moved on to its next order of business.

In its statement on 17 February — two days after the Supreme Court ruling — the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an electoral reforms non-profit founded in 1999 and one of the petitioners in the case, said it would continue its “mission of reducing money and muscle power in the political system and making the political parties more accountable, transparent and democratic in their functioning”.

Thisisn’t the first major case related to electoral practices that the ADRhas been involved in.From filing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which led to the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling that candidates must make full disclosure of their antecedents, to its involvement in the introduction of the None of the Above, or the NOTA button on Electronic Voter Machines (EVMs), in 2014, the ADR’s impact in the area of elections has been significant.

Over the years, the organisation has also built for itself the reputation of being a trusted data source on candidates and political parties.

“ADR remains strictly neutral and does not support or oppose any political party. We feel we need good legislators and good political parties that are honest, competent, and committed to public service in a healthy democracy,” Trilochan Sastry, chairman, founder member, and trustee of ADR, told ThePrint.

Despite its impact, there have been challenges too.The rise in muscle power has been a challenge that the organisation has been fighting against for years, Major General Anil Verma (retd), the head of ADR, told ThePrint. The former Army man, who joined a non-profit in 2014 after he left the forces, admits thatdespite the organisation’s efforts, there has been little success on that front.

“The negative part is that our main agenda was the reduction of muscle power and money power in politics. But the criminality is increasing in the polity of the country,” he said.

Another major challenge is dwindling funds. In 2023, the central government forbade 1,000 NGOS from accepting foreign contributions citing rule violations of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 — the law that regulates such donations. Although the ADR isn’t one of them, its funding has also been affected, says Verma.

“Resources are a challenge because we function only on donations. Domestic donations are a challenge because people are afraid (to donate). The foreign funding thing, you are seeing what’s happening to them. They are being squeezed. So, again there is no funding because then if you get that funding there are a lot of things that one has to answer for,” Verma said.

'Improving governance, strengthen democracy’ — what ADR does

According to its website, ADR was established in 1999 by a group of professors from the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad).“The idea came to me that there was corruption in high places. Back then it was Bofors, Fodder Scam and so on,” ADR chairman Sastry told ThePrint. “I felt that corruption needs to stop in high places before it can be tackled in day-to-day life. I wanted to file a PIL asking for disclosure of criminal records of candidates.”

After three different lawyers advised him to set up an organisation of his own to strengthen his case, Sastry — who got his bachelor’s degree from IIT (Delhi), an MBA from IIM (Ahmedabad), and a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — approached his colleagues at IIM (A).

Even today, the organisation is small — with merely 26 employees, most of them in their 20s and early 30s. But it has hundreds of reports — the most significant of these being its yearly analysis of funding to various political parties and data on assets and criminal antecedents of election candidates.

According to its website,ADR’s goal is “to improve governance and strengthen democracy by continuous work in the area of Electoral and Political Reforms”.

The non-profit has two wings —‘Election Watch’ and ‘Political Party Watch’. While the former is concerned with election activities including vote awareness programmes, the latter deals with political parties and related issues — such as electoral bonds.

According to Major General Anil Verma (retired), the ADR works on two levels for voter awareness. The first is holding outreach programmes such as door-to-door campaigns, street plays, and conducting events in schools. The second is social media campaigns through which “we put out our reports and the most important report is about the candidates just before the election”.

“I think ADR has made some difference in the sense that people are more aware now on (those) two counts,” he said.

But it takes more than just the right qualification or educational background to be part of ADR.“You need to be passionate about making reforms in the political and electoral system,” Shelly Mahajan, a programme and research officer at the non-profit, told ThePrint.

Shelly,who has a Master’s degree in political science from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has been at ADR for the last five years and is part of its three-member ‘Political Party Watch’ team, whichanalyses audit and funding reports, election expenditure, and data coming in from electoral trusts and electoral bonds.

“More than educational qualifications or skills, we need passion to be part of this long-drawn battle, which requires a lot of patience,” she said.

According to Sastry, the organisation doesn’t find it too difficult to find the right people. “In terms of actual work and attracting talented people, we don’t seem to have too much of a problem. There are sufficient patriotic Indians out there who want to serve the nation and our democracy for low salaries,” he said.

ADR’s legal battles

ADR's press conference on criminal, financial background, and other details of candidates contesting in Delhi Assembly elections in 2013 | Credit:
ADR’s press conference on criminal, financial background, and other details of candidates contesting in Delhi Assembly elections in 2013 | Credit:

Since 2002, the ADR has notched some significant legal victories — such as the electoral bonds case — while some others are still ongoing.

Its earliest victory came in 2002, when the Supreme Court, on a PIL, made it mandatory for all candidates contesting elections to disclose criminal, financial, and educational background before the Election Commission of India.

Another one of ADR’s most notable cases is NOTA, when the Supreme Court, just months before the 2014 general election, made the option mandatory in all elections going forward. Although the PIL in the case was filed by the civil society group People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the ADR filed an intervention — a procedure that allows a non-party, called intervener, to join ongoing litigation — in the case.

The non-profit also filed a similar intervention in the 2013 landmark Lily Thomas case, when the SC ruled that an MP or MLA who has been convicted for a punishment that carries a jail sentence of more than two years will be disqualified from holding office. It was this ruling that led to thecontroversial disqualificationof Rahul Gandhi as an MP after his conviction in a defamation case last March. The SC stayed that ruling last August.

It was also on the ADR’s petition that the Delhi High Court held both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress guilty of accepting election donations in violation of the FCRA. The ruling came in March 2014 — days before voting for the general election began that year.

Although both BJP and Congress withdrew their appeals against the ruling in the Supreme Court, it was after this order that the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) made amendments to the legal provisions on political funding in India, including the now-scrapped EBS scheme.

The most recent petition that the ADR is involved in is the legal challenge to the Modi government’s law for the appointment of India’s top election officers, including the chief election commissioner. Called the Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Bill, 2023, the law mandates that a selection committee headed by the prime minister, a Union minister, and the leader of the opposition would appoint the chief election commissioner (CEC) and other election commissioners (ECs).

The law, tabled in Parliament in the monsoon session last year and passed in the winter session, reverses a landmark SC ruling from March 2023, which held thatmembers of the Election Commission of India should be appointed on the advice of a committee comprising the PM, the Chief Justice of India, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.

The ADR was among the original petitioners that led to that March 2023 SC ruling.

Another significant case is its 2015 petition to bring all political parties within the ambit of the Right to Information Act. It’s also part of a petition seeking 100 percent verification of all votes cast through EVMs. Both cases are currently ongoing.

Impact and challenges

On its website, ADR claims credit for the Election Commission of India’s 2002 decision exercise to verify the information candidates gave in their nomination papers. It also claims to have made an impact three years later, when its “Bihar Election Watch in October‐November 2005 resulted in intense pressure on the chief minister-designate (Nitish Kumar) due to the extensive media coverage of candidate background (sic)”.

“As a result, for the first time, Bihar has a council of ministers without any known criminal record,” says the ADR website, about that year.

But it’s not only its reports that have made a difference — itsmynetaportal, which provides information about candidates, is also seen as a useful verification tool.

But there are challenges to the work that the ADR does. For one thing, Sastry believes that sample surveys by the organisation show that despite its efforts, access to public information on candidates remains elusive to a large number of people.“That is because media coverage of other issues drown out the data ADR puts out,” he said.

For another, criminalisation of politics continues to remain a significant problem.“Though we now have 43 percent in Lok Sabha with a criminal record, it may have been worse but for publicly available information,” he said.

Another problem is litigious politicians. “When we publish reports, politicians also feel offended. We’ve got legal notices a few times. They can be from any party. But we don’t withdraw because our reports are based on facts,” ADR head Verma told ThePrint.

But the biggest obstacle by far is the problem of dwindling funds.

ADR functions on voluntary contributions, with most of its funding coming from institutional donors. These have included some known names such as the Ford Foundation, Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI), Vikram Sarabhai Foundation, Thakur Family Foundation, and Lal Family Foundation.

“In the last couple of years, we have been doing crowdsourcing as well. A lot of people who support us are right-minded people who think we are doing good work. We take small amounts on our website. There are few other people also who donate substantial amounts but that’s becoming less and less because of the atmosphere that is prevailing right now,” Verma told ThePrint.

Donations, however, appear to be seeing an uptick in the last few years — according to its annual report, the organisation’s voluntary contributions have gone up over the last two years, from Rs 10.22 lakh in 2021-22 to over Rs 1.8 crore in 2022-23.

Shelly attributes these dramatic fluctuations in donations to different pitches the organisation makes depending on elections scheduled for a particular year and its plans for them. However,employees ThePrint spoke to also hope that the SC’s ruling on the Electoral Bonds Scheme could help see the tide turning.

Despite its challenges, the ADR hopes to continue to do its work. According to Verma, the non-profit has survived so far because it has been “apolitical and non-partisan”.

“Because we do not go against any particular party, whatever reforms we suggest apply to all the parties,” the former army officer told ThePrint.

What happens when authorities come knocking? “The income tax authorities and even the IB (Intelligence Bureau) keep asking us questions — not once but a few times — and ask for all data. After scrutiny, they have so far said all is well and ADR is fully compliant with all regulations (sic),” Sastry said.

With the general election approaching, the ADR founder believes the biggest challenge is “to get sufficient voters/citizens to engage in preserving our democracy”.

“Good governance is too important to be left to the government. Citizens must engage constructively,” he told ThePrint.

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