An Interview with Trilochan Sastry
Conducted by Vincent Valdmanis
This interview took place at The Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore,
India. Professor Trilochan Sastry is the Director of the Association for Democratic
Reform in India
Briefly review how you came to the idea of candidate
I call it the Al Capone story. The FBI could never nail
Al Capone for murder or extortion. They nailed him for income tax evasion.
I thought we've got to get these guys on some kind of technicality. So once
they are forced to disclose the relevant information, if there is any discrepancy,
then they can be nailed. "Sorry, we had ten cases against you; you only
declared eight of them, so your election should be set aside."
Skeptics say, "Don't we know this guy's a crook?"
Yes, we know, but there's a difference between everyone knowing a politician
is a crook and he having to himself admit that he's a crook in writing. That's
a huge difference. There are a lot of conservative elements in society who
are very upset with what's happening in the country, but they're not going
to get out on the streets and do things. But once they see this in writing,
then they feel the need to take action. And that has started happening.
Is there evidence that candidate disclosures
actually affect the outcomes of elections?
So far, no. But they have had other kinds of positive
impacts. One is that both the national parties have started a process of inner-party
scrutiny. So the same forms that the Election Commission has prescribed, the
candidate has to fill in and give to the party bosses before he or she is
given a ticket. The parties are using this information in selecting their
So disclosures do have an impact, even if voters
pay little attention, because parties use them to weed out corrupt candidates.
Yes. In Gujarat we had 18 or 19 percent of candidates
with criminal records. In the next election, that rate came down to nine percent.
I anticipate this trend will continue.
Established political heavyweights with known criminal
records will continue to be nominated and maybe continue to win. But the up-and-coming,
the new rising stars with criminal records will be weeded out. It will take
time, but it will happen.
Did you see in the paper, this guy D P Yadav was expelled
from the BJP hardly four days after being inducted. That's because he's got
30 criminal cases against him. Earlier they wouldn't have bothered, but now
if the guy is going to run for office he would have to declare those cases.
And that would hurt the image of the party. So they just turn him out.
The disclosure is not only about criminal records.
Candidates must also disclose their financial background.
So now members of parliament are lining up in Delhi to pay off their outstanding
dues. Now, any outstanding dues to public financial institutions, including
the government, they would have to declare. They would have to say "I
owe the government of India 30 lakh Rupees." So rather than having to
state that, they're going and clearing up their debts.
What you're suggesting is that this is a long
term change. It will really affect the quality of the next generation of politicians.
It's a very funny thing. You never know when change
starts happening, when that magic critical mass is reached. I don't know when
or if that might happen. It might happen much sooner than we think. Because
people are sick and tired of this, there's no doubt about it.
Critics argue that disclosures will harm honest
politicians more than dishonest ones, because dishonest ones won't provide
a full accounting to begin with.
The Election Commission took this report [prepared by
Sastry's ADR] and asked the police and Intelligence Bureau to verify it. After
one year – I don't know why it took them so long – they discovered
that quite a few fellows had done exactly what you're saying. They had not
filed correct information. Now the Election Commission has started taking
action against them. False disclosure is a no-no. And these guys are damn
scared of it.
Another criticism is the disclosure requirement
of a candidate's educational background. Some say this is out of step with
India's democratic ethos, in which anyone of any educational background should
be able to run for office.
This is about disclosure, not disqualification. There
seems to be a contradiction here, because if it goes against the Indian ethos,
then why would people vote them out? Does the Indian ethos say that everybody
should be ignorant and illiterate?
When I tour villages, I find that if you ask poor women
to elect two or three leaders, typically they'll choose a middle-aged or older
woman who is older and wiser, and who would be largely illiterate, and they'll
choose a young woman who is at least a high school graduate. They are very
clear that some level of literacy is important. This is a myth that many of
these half-baked Socialists propagate in the name of I don't know what. We
are not disqualifying anybody. It's only about disclosure. And if based on
that, the people decide that they don't want to vote for this illiterate guy,
then the people of India are showing what way they want. I don't see the problem
How surmountable is the problem of corruption?
In the long run, how optimistic are you about cleaning up the country's politics?
This is not a one-man job. Candidate disclosure is a
tool that ordinary people can use around the country. It's had a snowballing
effect. Now there's a bill on electoral expenses. After 50 years, the government
suddenly woke up and passed a comprehensive bill on limiting expenses during
campaigns. And these expenses should be declared every three days during the
campaign. Any citizen can go and look at how much money the guy has spent.
And then a lot of people around the country have started examining voter rolls,
ensuring that they are accurate. So there's a whole set of activities going
on tying to improve the electoral process.
I've heard India's recent history summed up
as "from Gandhi to graft." How did it get this way?
I can give my view of it, but I don't claim that it's
the right or only view. During the Independence struggle, people who entered
public life had to make some sacrifice. Either you were going to go to jail
or get shot dead by the British. So there was a self-selection, and only a
certain kind of person was willing to do it. They were good at resistance,
but not necessarily good at governance.
During Independence, extreme right-wingers and extreme
left-wingers were all part of the Congress party fighting the British. But
after Independence this unity didn't make sense. In fact, slowly they started
splitting off. Gandhi saw this. He retired six months after Independence.
He said the Congress should be disbanded and we should have two political
The system we inherited from the British – and
this is not to blame the British – was suitable for the British administration.
And we just took it over. So there was no openness, there was no transparency,
there was no accountability, and there was nothing empowering the people.
You just administered. And that system doesn't hold people accountable. It
didn't happen immediately after Independence, it took 15, 25 years. I think
even in the United States, if you take an opaque government where nobody knows
what they hell they're doing, they'd be doing the same things.
Valdmanis conducted this interview while on a Watson
Fellowship in India.
to go home