Mid Day
Ajaz Ashraf

Jagdeep Singh Chhokar, 80, has been working tirelessly for 25 years to make Indian politics transparent. His patience bore fruit recently with the striking down of the electoral bond scheme

Jagdeep Singh Chhokar, at the age of 80, is the grand old man of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), which has waged many a battle for making our democracy transparent. It was to satisfy my curiosity as to why a retired management professor took to the task of reforming democracy that I met Chhokar. “My life has many twists,” he said.

He was once in the Indian Railways where, one day, he bumped into a colleague who was on his way to attend an MBA class. What’s this MBA, he asked. An explanation later, Chhokar enrolled, in 1974, at Delhi’s Faculty of Management Studies for its evening course. Wishing to stay in Delhi until his wife completed her MPhil-PhD, he opted for a deputation to a public sector undertaking. A management trainee there pestered Chhokar to apply for a PhD course abroad, even getting him addresses of American universities. To get the boy off his back, Chhokar applied.

He flew, in 1980, to the Louisiana State University where, during a break, he visited a friend teaching accounting at the University of Chicago. Join academia, the friend suggested. “My university is known more for its basketball team than academics,” Chhokar quipped. The friend persuaded Chhokar to write to the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

A year and a half later, during which his research papers were published in various journals, Chhokar received a cable: could he meet I G Patel, the iconic IIM Ahmedabad director, in New York? A tad arrogant about his academic credentials by now, Chhokar replied, sure, if they were to fly him to New York and put him up in the hotel where Patel was. The next thing, Patel was offering him a job over the phone. To IIM Ahmedabad he went, on deputation from the Railways, which he quit in 1990, as he climbed up the academic ladder to eventually become the institute’s dean, then director in-charge before retiring in 2006.

The next twist in Chhokar’s life was a quadruple heart bypass surgery he underwent, in 1998, during a one-year teaching assignment in New Orleans. The ephemerality of life spun him into a condition bordering on depression. Back in India, in his darkled mood, he accompanied his brother-in-law on a 10-day tour of Gujarat, to photograph its birds, their majestic plumes injecting a colour into the man with a mended heart.

To appreciate better the winged beauties, Chhokar secured a certificate in ornithology, through a correspondence course, from Bombay Natural History Society. Bird watching demands extreme patience, also a prerequisite for any endeavour to reform democracy, which became Chhokar’s mission through a twist his IIM colleague Trilochan Sastry, 14 years younger than him, inspired.

Aghast at media reports on criminals in politics, Sastry was curious to know the details about candidates contesting the 1999 Lok Sabha elections from Ahmedabad. He secured the nomination paper a candidate is required to fill and shared it with eleven academicians, including Chhokar. They were stunned: the nomination paper only asked for the candidate’s name, address, voter registration number, and his father’s or her husband’s name. How can voters make an informed choice about who to vote for? Just the condition conducive to criminals entering politics.

They decided to file a petition in the Delhi High Court. Their search for a lawyer took them to Kamini Jaiswal, who suggested they form an association of persons. Eleven people showed up for a meeting to which Sastry had invited many, and they constituted themselves into the Association for Democratic Reforms. In November 2000, the Delhi High Court ordered that candidates contesting the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections must give a sworn affidavit disclosing their educational qualification, their income and liabilities—and, above all, details of criminal cases pending against them where the court has framed charges.

But the Union government went in appeal to the Supreme Court which, in May 2002, gave the Election Commission two months to implement the High Court order. The political class unanimously resolved to nullify the Supreme Court judgment by amending the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Since the Lok Sabha was adjourned sine die, the Vajpayee government decided to promulgate an ordinance. 

Chhokar and 29 others took their case to President A P J Abdul Kalam, who returned the ordinance. But the ordinance was sent back to Kalam who constitutionally had no choice but to sign it. The ADR went to the Supreme Court which, in March 2003, declared the amendment unconstitutional.


The stonewalling of the political class shocked Chhokar. “This turned me into a diehard activist,” reminisced Chhokar, who, during this ding-dong battle with the political class, qualified as a lawyer, later going on to even argue for the ADR.

The ADR has waged lengthy legal battles to make democracy transparent, at times suffering setbacks, yet doggedly regrouping for another round. The ADR’s crowning glory is the Supreme Court judgment declaring the electoral bond unconstitutional. It propels the struggle to firewall the EVM from manipulation. “My takeaway from 25 years of activism is that our democracy cannot be vibrant as long as political parties remain non-democratic,” Chhokar said. Guess they will never become democratic.

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