ADR India works to monitor national elections through country-wide SMS and helpline campaigns and an informational website.
Association for Democratic Reforms
Posted by Aparna Ray on Nov 16, 2010
ADR undertook a country-wide SMS and helpline campaign during Lok Sabha (lower house of the national parliament) elections in 2009. It also built an easy-to-use website, MyNeta.info, through which information on election candidates, based on self-declared affidavits, is readily made available.
ADR’s toll-free helpline started as a pilot program during the 2009 state elections and ran as a full-fledged call center during Lok Sabha elections. Using about 25 lines between Delhi, Mumbai and other states, the organization answered around 1000 calls per day during the entire election period. The toll-free helpline was also functional during state assembly elections in Maharashtra, Haryana, Arunachal Pradesh and Jharkhand, and has now been made part of the National Election Watch process, a coalition of more than 1200 NGOs focused on improving democracy and governance in India.
An SMS campaign was also initiated during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, through which users could receive information regarding candidates in a particular constituency by texting the pincode of a specific area to an ADR number. The number of users who utilized these services reached about 100,000 during the Lok Sabha elections. The campaign also ran during the state assembly elections.
At each phase of the Lok Sabha polls, the ADR websites National Election Watch and MyNeta.info were updated with live information on contesting candidates. In fact, MyNeta.info had more than a million hits during the recent elections. In addition to information for candidates of Lok Sabha elections, the site also contains information about contestants in various state assembly elections.
ADR has been approached by all of India’s major media channels to participate in discussions and debates. During the recent Lok Sabha elections, state assembly elections, and elections to 55 Rajya Sabha (upper house of the national parliament) seats, ADR was asked to participate in panel discussions and debates by a large number of TV channels, which included CNN-IBN, NDTV, Aaj Tak, India News, and DD.
My name is Manorama Bakshi, and I work with ADR. ADR is working on different projects, but basically our main mission is strengthening and improving democracy in India.
ADR started in 1999 when a group of Indian Institute of Management professors in Ahmedabad came together to work for electoral reform. They filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Delhi High Court and asked that candidates and politicians disclose their criminal cases and their financial credentials in their affidavits. They wanted to work towards good governance; that was the crux of it. Since a lot of criminals had entered politics, the common man was sort of helpless. So that was the main reason why they joined hands to start this initiative.
ADR won two milestone judgments on the disclosure of candidates’ criminal and financial records from the Supreme Court in May 2002 and March 2003, respectively. Since then, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has taken it further and made it mandatory for candidates to disclose financial, criminal and educational background. Even though it was opposed initially, finally candidates have to listen to the Election Commission and now we see that affidavits are available whenever the candidates file for nomination.
We do a lot of research work and we have almost 1,200 NGOs all over the country who are supporting ADR. We have initiated the People’s or Citizens’ Election Watch at all major elections, like the National Election Watch, and disclosed candidates’ background information to the media and the public. It’s a campaign basically where people come together and work towards good governance and transparency. Since inception, ADR has done over 40 election watches and now we are planning to do election watches at the Panchayat (local government) level, so that there is transparency at that level also.
We are working with the Right to Information Act (RTI) so that we can attain greater transparency, and this will help the general public in a very big way. Our main objective is to mobilize public opinion, to create some kind of dialogue between the government and civil society. Empowering the citizens, informing the citizens so that they can take good decisions about who to select and who not to select as future leaders, so that we can have a better government without any tainted past.
Technology is a very important component of our work. We have a very active Google group where about 10,000 journalists are associated with us, and they get all our reports. We are also active through the print media as well as visual media and almost every week some of our founder members are on TV talking about politics and other associated issues on NDTV, CNN, BBC and other channels. Then we also have an online tool, myneta.info, where if you type the name of any politician you will get his affidavit, and all the information associated with him. We are very active in SMS campaigning, where you will get full information about the candidates contesting election from your constituency. We have a toll-free line, 1-800-110-440, where a person can get all relevant information pertaining to politics and other things. We are active on Facebook and Twitter — some of the social networks.
This is when we are talking about people who know these technologies, and can use them. But almost 70% of the people in India are not used to such technology and there we have to use other methods. There our 1,200-member NGO network is our main strength, and they disseminate information about the candidates, they educate the voter about how to go for voting, how to choose the right kind of candidate, and associated issues. Our network sees to it that the affidavits and other data are available at the state levels and disseminate them to the general public.
We publish research reports and information, but it’s not only information that we share. Information is only one part of it. We have many different initiatives, as I mentioned, such as election watch, political watch — where we analyze the political parties. We are also about advocacy and mobilization. We are constantly advocating with the government, members of parliament (MPs), members of the legislative assemblies (MLAs), courts etc. We try to inform them and influence them through our reports, through group meetings, seminars, one-to-one communication, and conversations, as is deemed fit. We give suggestions to the Election Commission so they can come out with very good policies. We have advocacy meetings with elected representatives also. Press, media, and citizen forums are also closely associated with us. So it is not only dissemination of information and research reports — it is much more than that. We talk about advocacy at much higher level, building the capacities of our network. On the other hand, we have state coordinators in each state, and they are further associated with other grassroots-level organizations. We do advocacy, send reports and information in their own dialects, their own vernacular language, do door-to-door campaigning, SMS campaigning, and reach out to the various constituencies — and all of this does have an impact at grassroots levels.
To prevent people with criminal backgrounds and criminal cases pending against them, and those who have cases of financial irregularities, from entering politics; to improve and strengthen the democracy as a whole; and to bring about electoral and political reforms, which include reforms in government policies and schemes, reforms in the government and bureaucracy levels, and good policies for good governance.
In the future I hope that we will strengthen our networks and work much better to strengthen governance and in the areas of electoral and political reforms. Today in India, not only do we have candidates with criminal backgrounds contesting elections, but many of them are winning and are our MPs! But such is not the case in countries like, say, Germany, where the people themselves will prevent such candidates from winning. In the future, I want to see ADR empowering the people and educating them on these issues, so that it will not only be the judiciary and legislature who are involved in this, but the people themselves will be so informed and so empowered that they themselves will prevent candidates with criminal backgrounds from entering politics by not voting for them.
We already have success stories behind us. The main impact, as I mentioned, has been that ADR has won two milestone judgments on the disclosure of candidates’ criminal and financial records. More recently, on January 25, 2010, both the Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), currently leader of the Opposition in Parliament, made public statements that they do not want candidates with criminal backgrounds to enter elections. The same thing was reiterated by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh: that while filing their affidavits, candidates should disclose all details pertaining to their assets and liabilities. So this is a visible impact of ADR’s persistent efforts.
The other kind of visible impact is that we have more than one lakh (100,000) hits on our website per day during elections, and we also get a very good response on Twitter and Facebook from people who follow us.
Another major impact: in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections major dons in the political scenario — those with serious pending criminal cases against them, such as Pappu Yadav, Atique Ahmad, Mukhtar Ansari, and Akhlesh Singh — lost the elections. This shows that our continuous campaigning and mobilizing people at grassroots level has had its impact.
Furthermore, though the overall number of criminal cases may have risen, what we have recently seen is that these are mainly general cases like forgery and cheating, but serious criminal offences among MPs have come down from 296 in the 2004 Lok Sabha to 274 in the 2009 Lok Sabha 2009, which is again a healthy sign.
So our campaign has made an impact on the system itself. Political parties have also become conscious in granting candidature, even though a lot is left to be done and we need to strengthen democracy both within and among the parties. But, yes, they know that ADR is like a watchdog, looking at what is happening, and sooner or later they may raise these issues at various platforms.
The biggest obstacle is that political parties in India still do not have inner-party democracy. There is not much women’s representation, and political parties are not very open and transparent about these kinds of issues. For example, in any constituency, one of the biggest obstacles is that political parties have given few candidates. Or we have the tainted constituencies where you will see that more than 10 people who are contesting the elections have criminal offenses registered against them; in these cases people have a very limited choice. So this is one of the biggest hurdles.
One candidate’s ad says, “Sacche ko chuno, acchhe ko chuno” (“vote for the honest, vote for the good”), but you can vote for the good candidates only when you have them. So if the political parties have put up candidates with tainted pasts, or if they are not educationally qualified, or they are not efficient and cannot do much for their constituencies, or they do not use the money for their constituencies, then people have a limited choice.
ADR has already initiated higher-level advocacy as well as grassroots mobilization regarding this. High-level advocacy with the political parties means we send them our research reports so that they know that people are looking at these kinds of things, these are their expectations, so they may think twice about whom to give, who not to give. We are asking them to be more transparent as far as monetary contributions go; we have filed many RTI applications before the Election Commission asking these parties to give a contribution report — to disclose how many contributions they are getting from different corporations and other sources. When we do this, we are getting responses. We are working on these reports, which will be published in due course.
Politics is something that touches everyone. From buying your vegetables to policies, directly or indirectly, politicians have a say. They are the ones who frame our policies, which is how the general public gets impacted by their decisions.
Regarding the Election Commission, we are working parallel to them, and it is because of their verdict and order that these candidates now have to file their affidavits and disclose their information, and their affidavits are available on the ECI website itself. But having affidavits is not enough. We analyze the raw data and come out with the comprehensive media reports detailing all the information about each candidates: how many criminal offenses he has, how many murder charges and other charges, his financial irregularities if any, etc. So we definitely have close rapport with the Election Commission.
Regarding our relationship with the government, we strategize depending on whatever strategy is needed at a given point. When we file the RTIs, we are getting a response, so there is no reason to be unnecessarily raising hue and cry about the issue. But when issues need to be raised at much larger platforms, we do raise those issues. We do talk about the people who are in power and who have criminal backgrounds. Whenever our founders and coordinators speak at national forums we do discuss that so many parties have so many criminal candidates with them and they have given tickets to so many people. We are not pro one party or pro another party. We are talking about each and every party.
We are not very closely involved with the private sector, barring groups like the Tatas, from who we get funding. But, yes, the private sector is part of the general public, and the general public is the sector we are working with. In our scope, everyone is included, whether private, public or whatsoever, because our main aim is to reach out to the people, to inform the citizens and to motivate them to bar criminals from entering politics.
Well, I am not sure as to how many organizations are working on these issues. If others replicate our work, I will consider it a good thing, a very positive step. When others want to replicate your work and work in the same field, that means ADR’s work is being appreciated and it is something good.
No. So far as ADR’s work is concerned, we initiated the work towards good governance and electoral and political reforms on our own, without following or replicating the work of any other organization. We were not even aware of any other effort, so did not get “inspired” by them.
The main thing is our strong network and, through our network partners, our other associations which I talked about, apart from the ECI, the judiciary etc. We also work with political and journalism departments of various universities and hold various programs so that the students graduated from these universities will be better informed.