Candidates contesting the upcoming Lok Sabha elections will have to mandatorily reveal their income tax returns of the last five years and details of offshore assets. The disclosure will not be limited to the candidate, but also cover the spouse, members of the Hindu Undivided Family (if the candidate is a ‘karta’ or coparcener) and dependents. The above changes, meant for all forthcoming elections, were introduced in Form 26 and notified by the Law Ministry on Tuesday.
A candidate fighting an election is required to file an affidavit called Form 26, along with the nomination, that furnishes information on her assets, liabilities, educational qualification and criminal antecedents, if any.
Earlier, a candidate had to only declare the last IT return (for self, spouse and dependents) in Form 26. Details of foreign assets were not asked. Offshore assets, as per Tuesday’s notification, means “details of all deposits or investments in foreign banks and any other body or institution abroad and details of all assets and liabilities in foreign countries”.
Although, in the old Form 26, candidates were expected to provide their Permanent Account Number (PAN) along with that of their spouse and dependents, it was noticed that many had skipped this column. The amended affidavit clearly states that it is mandatory to mention PAN and “in case of no PAN, it should be clearly stated ‘No PAN allotted’”.
The changes were made to the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, at the Election Commission’s (EC’s) behest after it wrote to the Law Ministry on February 13 seeking amendments to Form 26 for easier verification by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT).
Fast on one hand, slow on the other
While the government has readily accepted the EC’s suggestion on disclosure of IT returns of candidates, it is still dragging its feet on the Commission’s recommendation of making filing of false affidavit a “corrupt practice” under the electoral law, which would make the candidate liable for disqualification for up to six years. The suggestion was made in May 2018. The current penalty for lying in an affidavit filed before the EC is imprisonment of up to six months, or fine, or both.
CBDT, on EC’s request, has been scrutinising poll affidavits to verify whether the information on movable and immovable assets submitted by the contesting candidates matches the income they have declared in the past.
The CBDT, as per its arrangement with EC, does not scrutinise all affidavits. It acts in cases referred by the Commission, cases where the contesting candidate’s assets have grown phenomenally since the last election, cases of winning candidates, cases where the PAN has not been disclosed but the candidate’s movable assets are more than Rs 5 crore and cases where the candidate’s new movable assets, compared to the last election, is more than Rs 2 crore.
Although CBDT’s verification reports are not public (EC and CBDT are working on a format for public disclosure), details of a candidate’s income, especially a Lok Sabha MP’s income, over last five years will be accessible to all since Form 26 is a public document, said sources.
Jagdeep Chhokar, founder of Association for Democratic Reforms, welcomed the change. “This means voters will have more information on the candidates, which is a good thing,” he told The Indian Express.