A tribal’s fight against political corruption
Thiruvananthapuram, April 19 :
Amidst Tehelka exposure occupying the centre-stage in the ongoing poll campaign in five states, and when candidatures of convicted corrupt leaders like AIADMK supremo Jayalalitha and Kerala’s R. Balakrishna Pillai hang in balance before the judiciary and Election Commission, a tribal of Kerala, Dr. Nalla Thambi Thera, is silently continuing his relentless lonely struggle against political corruption.
Hailing from Sultan Bathery in Kerala’s tribal district of Wayanad, Dr. Thera had sent a petition to President K. R. Narayanan seeking Presidential review of the Supreme Court orders on Section 77(1) of the Representation of People’s Act. Way back in 1985, Dr. Thera petitioned the Apex Court against the following clause which sanctifies political parties to spend unlimited money for their candidates’ electioneering : “Any expenditure incurred or authorised in connection with the election of a candidate, by a political party or association by any other individual, shall not be deemed to be expenditure incurred or authorised by the candidate.”
Dealing with Dr. Thera’s prayer to strike down the clause, the five-member Constitution Bench of Supreme Court headed by then Chief Justice Y. V. Chandrachud said in praise of Dr. Thera : “The petitioner is not an intermeddler or a busybody. He is a public spirited citizen whose motives in filing this petition are to be admired…. Insofar as our little knowledge of political affairs goes, sky is the limit for such expenditure (by political parties in elections). Some call it millions, some call it billions….”
The court, however, could not give a favourable verdict to Dr. Thera, saying that though the financial capacities of political parties may differ, it was justifiable to put all parties in one class. “Inequalities are, unfortunately, implicit in the unequal positions in which the citizens find themselves…. The fairest form of fairness in elections would be for the State to allocate funds from its own exchequer to enable candidates to contest elections. But that is a far cry.” Terming that Dr. Thera’s criticism against the clause as diluting the principle of free and fair elections was “not unjustified”, the SC said : “But it is not for us to lay down policies in matters pertaining to elections.”
Dr. Thera’s present petition to the President seeks referring this judgment to a larger bench with more than five judges under Article 143(1) of the Constitution, which empowers the President to refer to the Supreme Court any question of law on which public interest demands an expeditious opinion, and, after the due process, the Court has to inform the President its opinion.
What motivated Dr. Thera to approach the Apex Court in 1985 seeking to strike down the clause was an earlier verdict by SC Division Bench Justices P. N. Bhagwati and R. S. Sarkaria in 1975 saying that the ceiling cannot be evaded by a candidate simply by letting his party, friends or supporters to do the election spending for himself. Dealing with the anti-democratic effects of the clause, the Court said : “A political party or individual backed by the affluent and the wealthy would be able to secure greater representation, than a party or individual without any links with affluence and wealth. This would result in serious discrimination…on the basis of money power. And it would mean that voters are denied an equal voice and candidates are denied an equal chance….”
As against the presently parroted “party fund” justifications against Tehelka exposure by ruling party leaders, this SC verdict observed quarter-century ago : “Political parties will go all out for collecting contributions and obviously the largest contributors will be the rich and affluent, who constitute hardly a fraction of the electorate. The pernicious influence of big money will play a decisive role in controlling the democratic process in the country…the object of imposing a ceiling (on electoral expenses) will be completely frustrated and the beneficent provision enacted in the interest of purity and genuineness of the democratic process would be wholly emasculated”.
Dr. Nalla Thambi Thera was also instrumental in keeping Kerala’s UDF and LDF rulers in dock by challenging the non-implementation of the 1975 Tribal Land Act by the successive State Governments in the High Court. To bypass the repeated High Court orders since 1993, the LDF and UDF joined hands to unanimously pass an amendment to the Act in September 1996, with the sole exception of K. R. Gouriamma opposing it. When this was rejected by President Narayanan in March 1998, another amendment was passed in 1999 which is still entangled in legal hurdles before the High Court and Supreme Court. Amidst all these, Dr. Thera also had to face several threats and vindictive actions from the powerful encroachers of tribal land with due political backing