An Interview with Trilochan Sastry

Conducted by Vincent Valdmanis


Upside Down World

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 disclosure.

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 candidates.

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 with that

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 parties.

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.

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"If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn't we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?" ---Eduardo Galeano