The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) is a national-level NGO that works toward increased transparency and accountability of electoral and political systems in India. By publicising information on the criminal, educational and financial records of candidates contesting elections, ADR has become very successful in improving transparency and accountability from elected representatives and within political parties. The key to its efforts: sustained election monitoring and policy advocacy.
ADR first came into the limelight in early 2000, when the Supreme Court of India, responding to a Public Interest Litigation filed by ADR in 1999, made it mandatory for all candidates contesting legislative elections to disclose their criminal, educational and financial backgrounds. Subsequently, ADR initiated the National Election Watch (NEW), a coalition of more than 1200 NGOs and civil society organisations across all of India’s 28 states, to analyse, monitor and share information on elections at the national and state level. ADR uses an SMS system, a toll-free helpline and its website to inform the public of candidates’ background.
Realising that transparency and accountability are not sufficiently built into the political system, ADR is continuously engaged in monitoring, legal intervention and policy advocacy with the judiciary, relevant government bodies and agencies, and political parties. This strategy has led to tremendous results. One was the Supreme Court rulings on mandatory disclosure of candidates’ information prior to elections. Another was the Central Information Commission’s rulings that income tax returns of political parties and information on financial contributions, and the financial interests of members in the Rajya Sabha [India’s Upper House of Parliament], are part of the public domain.
Since 2003, ADR and NEW have monitored the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections and almost all state-level elections. Political parties are increasingly aware of the need for internal and external accountability, and there are now fewer candidates with serious criminal offences contesting and winning elections. Voluntary disclosures of information are also on the rise. In 2011, the Prime Minister’s Office released details on the financial assets of the Union Cabinet. The Cabinets of Bihar (2010) and Uttarakhand (2011) have also declared their financial assets.