PUCL v. UOI [AIR 2003 SC 2363]

The Supreme Court reiterated its position, holding that voters have a right to obtain information regarding political candidates as per the provisions of Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution.

Bench – K.G. Balakrishnan, P.Venkatarama Reddi.

Facts – The People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) questioned the constitutionality of Section 33B of the Representation of the People Act of 1951. Section 33B stated that, notwithstanding a court or Election Commission judgement, an electoral applicant is not needed to reveal any information other than that required by the Act. The Supreme Court recognised in Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms that the right to know about election applicants tends to fall inside the right to information obtainable there under the right to freedom of speech and expression mentioned in Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. It also stated that data about candidates’ criminal backgrounds, assets and liabilities of candidates and their family members, and educational qualifications should be made accessible to voters as part of their right.

The Election Commission gave orders to carry out this decision. However, Section 33B rendered the judgement in that case and other guidelines ineffectual. As a result, the PUCL claimed that Section 33B violated Article 19(1) (a).

Issues – 

  • Whether Section 33B is in violation of Article 19 (1) (a) or not?
  • Whether the right to information of electoral candidates is under right to freedom of expression or not?
  • Whether the Election Commission has the authority to issue an order for background information of candidates or not?

Judgment – The Supreme Court of India reaffirmed that voters have the right to equal access information about electoral applicants under Article 19(1)(a). Recurrent elections convey democratic will of the people in a democracy. The provision of essential data about the candidates allows voters to make a decision which is informed while also laying the groundwork for public debates on the candidates’ advantages and disadvantages. This, in turn, promotes free speech and expression while also ensuring the credibility of a democracy’s electoral process. Furthermore, freedom of expression contains not only oral or written expression, but also voting as a means of expression.

Although the right to vote is not a fundamental right in and of itself, the affirmation of one’s viewpoint through the ultimate act of voting is protected by Article 19(1) as part of the fundamental right to free speech and expression (a). It is preferable to take a progressive attitude to the release of information about an electoral candidate. Compelling someone to reveal personal details, on the other hand, violates that person’s privacy. There is a necessity to find a middle ground between the right of voters and the privacy of candidates. The legislature must use its judgement to establish the criteria under which data must be divulged.

In the absence of such legislation, the Court provided certain wide markers for disclosing in the scenario of Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms in giving effect to the right under Article 19(1) (a). The Election Commission guidelines premised on this decision were only intended to be in effect until the legislature implemented a suitable law. While these disclosure marks represent as wide markers for enacting legislation, the legislature must offer them equal credit.

The Court ruled that Section 33B of the 1951 Representation of the People Act was unconstitutional. For starters, it started shaking and stalled the right to information by nullifying the effect of any order or judgement needing information disclosure. Rather, the right to information is a living, evolving right that should be nurtured. Second, the Act insufficiently required candidates to disclose information about their criminal histories, as well as their assets and liabilities, as well as those of their spouses and children. Nevertheless, the Court ruled that by not requiring the sharing of educational qualifications, Article 19(1)(a) was not violated.

The Court ordered the Election Commission to release amended directions in compliance with the law enshrined in this decision.