As chief election commissioner, S Y QURAISHI, took the UPA government head-on on a number of issues. Ahead of the release of his An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election later this month, he discusses the book and his run-ins with the government in this interview with Maneesh Chhibber.
Why this book?
I felt there is much about Indian elections most people are not aware of… When India votes, it is more than the 50 countries of Europe put together, more than the 54 countries of the African continent and much more than the 43 countries of North and South Americas. That’s what makes Indian general election the biggest human event of the world, with over 814 million voters. Even the Harvard Business School approached us for case studies. Secondly, when I was CEC, there were some controversies which refused to die. This book offers explanations for those controversies.
Talking of controversies, one of the biggest was when the then law minister Salman Khurshid dared you to act against him over his comments about Muslim sub-quota.
The EC’s job is to provide a level playing field to all contestants. It is expected to ensure that the government of the day doesn’t have incumbency advantage. That is why the model code of conduct (MCC) has a separate chapter…prohibiting announcement of any new scheme. When Mr Khurshid made a statement that violated the MCC, we received a complaint from the opposition, following which we issued a notice. But, by making an unwarranted fuss, he himself made it controversial. In fact, a lot of people felt .. we let him off very lightly.
The real problem arose when he questioned the authority of the ECI. Here was a law minister, who, instead of being the protector of the Constitution, was actually questioning and threatening it… That was simply not acceptable and we wrote to the President, which, too, was unprecedented.
Didn’t this controversy also reinforce the fact that EC has very little power?
Not really. On the contrary, the prompt action ensured that all players conducted themselves properly… People often ask why EC does not take stricter action. Under the MCC, there is only this much we can do but it is very powerful. If we initiate action under any other law, certainly action will be stronger, but the result will come after 10 years. In any case, if action is possible under any other law, like IPC or Representation of the Peoples Act, that too is taken.
Were you ever under pressure from the government?
No, not at all. When we wrote to the President she immediately asked the Prime Minister to deal with it… EC, let me tell you, is not trigger-happy; our aim is not to destabilise the government. In fact, EC is a great stabilising force of our democracy. That’s why we accepted the unconditional regret and apology and closed the matter.
What was your conversation with the PM about?
We had several conversations with the PM. This PM is a very nice person, a perfect gentleman who would never like any thing that erodes the authority of EC… I think he was quite upset when he got to know about loose talk against the EC by some people… As I told you, there was nothing personal…
What was your most difficult decision when you were CEC?
I think countermanding election to two Rajya Sabha seats in Jharkhand was the most drastic action that we had to take when horse trading took its ugliest form. We got full support of all serious leaders. Even the Jharkhand High Court appreciated the action as the most decisive against corruption in our electoral history.
Whenever elections are held government functioning comes to a halt due to imposition of MCC. Don’t you think this is uncalled for?
This is a mistaken notion. When has EC said that government functioning should stop? All that the MCC expects is that no new schemes be announced. But departments start sending every file to EC for approval, sometimes just to pass the buck or delay a case. This is not required. Often we saw representatives of big corporates waiting at the entrance to Nirvachan Sadan pleading for ‘approval’ of files from concerned ministries. Why should EC be asked to clear files concerning oil, coal, or steel? EC does not have the time or wish to run the government. Besides, when files come to us, we clear them in double-quick time. So where is the question of delay by EC? I once cleared a government proposal — to increase MPLAD funds from Rs 2 crore to Rs 5 crore — on phone.