Despite being rebuffed twice by the government, the Election Commission of India (ECI) is persisting with its demand for the power to cancel an election in case of voter bribery, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Nasim Zaidi told The Sunday Express in an interview on Friday.
Cash and liquor seizures during the ongoing assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur have been over three times the volumes that were seized when these states went to polls the last time in 2012, Zaidi said.
The CEC, who retires from his post in four months, said the government could have done more to give effect to pending electoral reforms. He also called for a separate provision in the Representation of the People (RP) Act to deal exclusively with hate speeches in election campaigns, and time-bound disposal of election petitions by courts.
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As reported by The Indian Express on June 6, 2016, the Election Commission had approached the Law Ministry seeking amendments to the RP Act for permanent legal powers to countermand elections in case there was credible evidence that voters had been bribed.
The proposal was sent after the Tamil Nadu assembly elections, in which the Commission, in an unprecedented step, had used its extraordinary powers under Article 324 of the Constitution to call off polling at two seats for voter bribery.
Although this proposal has already been rejected twice, the EC, in a rare intervention, has approached the Law Ministry for a third time, asking for a review. “Everybody has his or her wisdom. In our wisdom, we feel it should be done. They feel otherwise. They have asked us to continue using Article 324 (to deal with voter bribery), but we have said we need proper legal cover just as in the case of booth capturing,” Zaidi said.
“We have taken up the proposal (with the government) for the third time. The Commission will cancel elections only on the basis of the report of the Returning Officer and Observers, and some credible evidence that there was largescale distribution of money to voters. The investigation will be conducted in the same manner as booth capturing. So, in the Commission’s view, it is incorrect to say that bribery stands on a different footing than booth capturing,” he said.
On the unabated influence of black money in elections, despite demonetisation, Zaidi said, “I would not like to comment on what was or wasn’t intended with the demonetisation decision. I can only quote data. Our seizures are more than three times compared to the assembly polls 2012. A major portion of the Rs 350 crore seized was in cash. So, in this election we found more movement of cash and more distribution of liquor. In Uttar Pradesh alone, liquor worth Rs 60 crore was caught.”
On the government’s repeated public statements urging the Commission to build consensus on having elections simultaneously in the states and at the Centre, Zaidi said the EC had not received any formal communication from the government to this effect.
Asked if he agreed with the criticism that electoral bonds would mask whatever little transparency that exists currently in political funding, the CEC said, “Our stand has always been that any scheme that brings about a reduction in anonymity is welcome.”
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his Budget speech on February 1 had announced introduction of electoral bonds, which a donor can purchase from authorised banks, but can only redeem through registered accounts of a political party. This, he said, was aimed at protecting the identity of donors who fear adverse consequences for contributing to one political party.