Source: 
Hindustan Times
https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/poll-candidates-don-t-need-to-disclose-every-asset-sc-on-privacy-rights-101712687587160-amp.html
Author: 
Utkarsh Anand
Date: 
10.04.2024
City: 
New Delhi

The court specified that while significant assets must be disclosed, there is no need for an exhaustive list of all personal property

The Supreme Court on Tuesday held that an electoral candidate’s right to privacy remains intact for matters irrelevant to voters or his public role, clarifying that candidates are not mandated to reveal every asset owned by them or their dependents, but only those that significantly influence their public image or lifestyle and have a bearing on an elector’s choice.

“We are not inclined to accept the blanket proposition that the candidate is required to lay his life out threadbare for examination by the electorate. His right to privacy would still survive as regards matters which are of no concern to the voter or are irrelevant to his candidature for public office. In that respect, non-disclosure of each and every asset owned by a candidate would not amount to a defect, much less a defect of a substantial character,” declared a bench of justices Aniruddha Bose and Sanjay Kumar.

The ruling marked a significant stance on the privacy rights of candidates versus the public’s right to information, adding to a string of landmark judgments from the Supreme Court, which has played a pivotal role in steering electoral reforms to ascertain transparency, accountability and fairness in the democratic process.

As the court addressed the argument that voters have an absolute right to know all details about a candidate, it maintained it was not necessary that a candidate declare every item of movable property that he or his dependent family members own, such as clothing, shoes, crockery, stationery and furniture, etc., unless they were of such value as to constitute a sizeable asset or reflect upon his candidature in terms of his lifestyle and require to be disclosed.

Underscoring the balance between a candidate’s privacy and the voters’ right to know, the court specified that while significant assets must be disclosed, there is no need for an exhaustive list of all personal property, regardless of whether they are substantial in value or suggest a lavish lifestyle.

It stressed that a candidate’s right to privacy is unaffected by issues unrelated to voters or his public position, holding that not all movable assets must be disclosed unless they have a substantial impact on the candidate’s public persona or lifestyle.

The important clarification from the Supreme Court came as it upheld the 2019 election of independent MLA Karikho Kri for the Tezu assembly constituency in Arunachal Pradesh. Kri’s election was invalidated by the Gauhati high court last year over non-disclosure of certain assets in his nomination papers. The northeastern state is up for fresh assembly polls later this month.

In the Mohinder Singh Gill vs Chief Election Commissioner (1978) case, the Supreme Court declared that free and fair elections are a basic feature of the Constitution. In the cases of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) in 2002 and People’s Union for Civil Liberties in 2003, the apex court mandated the disclosure of criminal antecedents, educational qualifications and financial assets, promoting voters’ right to make informed choices.

The Supreme Court in 2013 directed the Election Commission to have an option of “None Of The Above” (Nota) on ballot papers and electronic voting machines (EVMs). The February 2024 judgment quashing the electoral bond scheme also sanctified the voters’ right to know.

In its judgment on Tuesday, the court overturned the Gauhati high court’s decision that declared Kri’s election null and void for not disclosing the ownership of a scooty and a Maruti Omni van by his wife, and a motorcycle by his son. The high court decision came on an election petition filed by Congress candidate Nuney Tayang against Kri, challenging the latter’s election victory on grounds of non-disclosure and inaccurate information in nomination papers. The petition pointed out the three vehicles were still registered in the names of Kri’s family members.

Affirming Kri’s election, the Supreme Court bench observed that since these vehicles were either gifted away or sold prior to the nomination, their non-disclosure did not amount to a violation. “Such non-disclosure cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be treated as an attempt on his part to unduly influence the voters, thereby inviting the wrath of Section 123(2) of the Act of 1951,” it said.

The bench used the example of high-priced watches, which, if owned in multiple, need to be disclosed as they represent a high-value asset and indicate a lavish lifestyle, unlike everyday items that do not necessitate disclosure.

The court made it clear that in order to inform voters about their lifestyle, candidates must declare any high-value assets they own, adding that each case must be evaluated based on its unique facts and that there is no “hard and fast” or “straitjacketed” rule in this regard.

Regarding Kri’s failure to reveal the municipal and property tax obligations he and his wife must pay, the court said that it cannot be considered a complete non-disclosure because he did reveal the specifics of these obligations in one section of his affidavit but not in another.

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