The Times of India
Archana Khare Ghose

A few days ago, Anil Bairwal of the Association for Democratic Reforms-National Election Watch (ADR-NEW ) received a threat from a councillor - whose details he doesn't divulge - that he would come to beat him up. Bairwal laughs while sharing this information. As national coordinator of the NGO working for electoral reforms, he is used to getting threats, some even graver.

The US-returned software engineerturned-activist is at the forefront of a body that is constantly exposing the unsavoury backgrounds of politicians. It was ADR, set up in 1999 by a group of IIM-Ahmedabad professors, that had filed a PIL in the Delhi High Court the same year requesting for the criminal, financial and educational backgrounds of election candidates. It was on the basis of that PIL that the Supreme Court made it mandatory in 2003 for all candidates to disclose these details to the Election Commission . ADR had compiled the first such list for the 2002 Gujarat assembly polls and has since widened its scope to the entire country, with the help of volunteers who work for NEW.

The result is a collection of data that many politicians - like the unnamed councillor - find dangerous for their careers. For instance, 98 candidates out of a total 325 - or 30% - analysed by ADR-NEW from a field of 962 in the seventh phase of assembly elections in UP on March 4 have criminal cases against them. Of these, 37 have declared serious criminal cases like murder, attempt to murder, kidnapping, rape and extortion in the affidavits filed with the EC.

The rot extends across the political spectrum . In UP's seventh phase, 27 out of 60 candidates of the Samajwadi Party have criminal backgrounds while the figure stands at 20 out of 60 for BJP; 13 out of 60 for BSP; 14 out of 51 for the Congress, and 4 out of 10 for Rashtriya Lok Dal.

So what choice is the voter left with? Bairwal says these figures are an important tool in raising awareness amongst voters about their potential leaders. He cites a figure to show that winds of change, though feeble, may already be beginning to blow. ''In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, 25% of the contesting candidates had criminal cases against them while the figure came down to 14% in 2009. So, while established politicians with criminal backgrounds may continue to work well within the system, there are enough barriers for new entrants with criminal backgrounds. The nature of crime, too, has changed, from blue collar to white collar,'' he says.

Talking about the furore that rocked the BJP over the entry of expelled BSP minister Baburam Kushwaha, Bairwal says that now there is enough pressure on party leaderships to keep such elements at bay. ''But the road ahead is long,'' he says. ''Just ADR won't be able to bring about the change. Politicians and political parties are so arrogant that only strong public opinion can make a difference. The biggest problem is that we don't have any law governing the functioning of a political party.''

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