Hardnews Exclusive: We are examining the possibility of paper trails for the EVMs
Chief Election Commissioner Dr SY Quraishi seems quite satisfied with the conduct of the Bihar elections. Hardnews met him in his brightly lit office in Delhi a day after the sixth phase of the staggered elections and found him expressing resolve to curb the use of money and muscle power - the twin scourge in our elections. In Bihar, the Election Commission of India (ECI) succeeded in overseeing perhaps the most peaceful polls in the history of this violent state. With elections scheduled for several states in the next six months, Dr Quraishi talks about drawing from the Bihar experience to ensure that there is no violence. He also reveals that the ECI is seriously considering introducing a paper trail in the electronic voting machines (EVMs) - a long-standing demand of the machine's detractors - and a committee has been appointed to look into aspects of technology etc.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Sanjay Kapoor and Sadiq Naqvi
Elections have become a long and cumbersome exercise. Don't you think it impacts the government's functioning for many weeks?
No, that's not true. It is only for a period of three days that State personnel are deployed for the polls. You cannot blame the elections for disrupting work in the offices. Such disruption is not very different from what happens during festive periods like Dussehra and Diwali. After all, elections too are a celebration of sorts. And voters are unaffected by staggered polls as the election ends for them on the voting day itself.
Why can't the elections be conducted in a single phase?
We would be more than happy if that could be done. But people don't trust the local police to supervise free and fair elections. Everyone wants the deployment of central forces to feel safe enough to come out and vote. Surely, no one wants a bloodbath or booth-capturing by criminals during elections. Conducting elections in phases allows us to move the limited companies of the central forces to where they are needed and provide good security during voting.
Don't you think the overwhelming number of security personnel could scare the voters?
I don't agree with you. Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh had also complained once about voters getting scared due to the security forces. But the answer lies in the astonishing number of people who are coming out to vote. Take a look at the data; the voter turnout is rising with every election. Even the women feel more comfortable and secure now. And the credit must go to the security arrangements we have put in place. I think a large presence of central forces during polls is a small price to pay for free and fair elections.
Staggered elections also increase the expenses of the political parties. Your comments.
Yes, expenditure by the candidates for the last phase increases because they have to campaign for more days. The ECI starts monitoring the expenses only 14 days before the polls, and the candidates do sometimes manage to take advantage of this. We do not have a mechanism to curtail the expenditure by political parties. However, we are exploring ways to keep a check on this as well. If the parties spend money for advertising their candidates, we credit it to the candidate's expense account.
What about the astonishing amounts of money being spent by the candidates themselves. It has become difficult for people with no money to contest elections. Is the ECI taking any measures?
Yes, we have failed to an extent. The involvement of money and muscle power is a result of peer pressure. When one candidate spends money, the others follow suit. We have been taking a host of measures to check this. In the recent assembly polls is Bihar we unleashed the income tax machinery on the candidates. Our Expenditure Monitoring Division was headed by a director-general formerly from the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT). Then there were people from the income tax department and revenue intelligence officials on the ground. For the first time we checked the airplanes at the hangars besides alerting the railway stations.
Also, we asked our people to maintain shadow expense registers of candidates so that it becomes difficult for them to lie or make excuses. Then there were flying squads and a 24-hour call centre for registering complaints about electoral expenditure. We deployed observers and micro-observers, all from income tax background, to deter candidates from excessive use of money. Moreover, this time we had asked the candidates to open a new account for election expenses. Many of these were first-time experiments. And once we disqualify a few powerful people for violations, it will certainly act as a deterrent for others.
Did these experiments work in Bihar?
Yes, they did. We broke four records. The elections were the most peaceful and the most successful in terms of the least use of money and muscle power. Moreover, we witnessed the highest voter turnout, both male and female, and a record turnout in Naxal-affected areas. All this was made possible because we were tough in implementing the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). Almost 3.43 lakh miscreants faced preventive action and non-bailable warrants were executed against another 64,642 persons. We were particularly tough with the ruling party because they are the ones who can abuse power. Other political parties, too, were told to adhere to the code of conduct. This is no ordinary feat if you see the violent history of polls in Bihar. At the end of the day, even the less influential political parties came and thanked us for the peaceful and fair conduct of the polls.
What lessons did you learn from Bihar elections?
These elections were a sort of dry run for the forthcoming elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu et al. We set out do a few things and we succeeded in meeting some of our objectives. We were keen to curb the flow of money and violence during polls, and we were proved successful. However, the coming assembly elections will be quite challenging.
Instances of news space being bought by candidates for publicity have increased in recent times. Is the ECI coming up with any guidelines to check this menace?
This is a serious problem. Even the Left parties were suggesting that since the stringent MCC came into force, these new ways of publicity, like paid news and extensive use of the electronic media, came into the picture. In Bihar, also, we discovered some cases where news space was bought by candidates. Ashok Chavan's case - he allegedly fudged his election expenses, including his spending on paid news - is pending before the ECI. However, lately we have liberalised the MCC and allowed banners and flags for publicity. We are still reluctant as far as wall posters are concerned as even if we make it a voluntary act, the powerful candidates can still extract permission through force.
There is a body of opinion that is convinced that the EVMs can be tampered. Are you going to have a paper trail in EVMs?
Yes, we are examining the possibility of paper trails for the EVMs. An expanded expert committee, which now includes five persons, is looking into the issue of software, technology etc. Also, we have referred the issue to all the political parties for their feedback. We are keen to put to rest any doubts about the EVMs.
What changes in elections do you wish to see in the future?
I want criminals to be barred from contesting elections. We did float a proposal which was discussed with all the political parties. However, they rejected it outright. I even spoke to the law minister. Their argument was that as sometimes even fake FIRs are registered, no one can be termed a criminal until conviction. However, this is a baseless argument. When you are facing criminal charges and languishing in jail, you lose your fundamental rights, whereas the right to contest elections is just a statutory right. Then what is the need of extending this statutory right?
And I want the selection process of the Chief Election Commissioner to be fully transparent and based on seniority.