On the eve of the poll verdict, Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath discusses some of the issues that came up during the 2014 elections, in an interview to Shyamlal Yadav and Ritu Sarin. Excerpts:
The CPI(M) has said the Election Commission (EC) became a “mute spectator” to rigging in West Bengal. They have demanded a repoll in around 3,000 booths.
Allegations of rigging and electoral malpractices keep coming up in elections. I would only like to say that they are not as widespread and endemic today as they were some three-four general elections ago. We have a mechanism in place to take care of it. This time, particularly in West Bengal, we received a large number of complaints. When there are a large number of complaints, we have to be very careful.
There have been allegations of rigging from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar also. And 3,000 booths in West Bengal is a large number.
These are just complaints. Do not think that repolls will be ordered in all the 3,000 booths. Even the person who made the complaints knows that. To complain is their right; to inquire and take appropriate action is our duty. You cannot indiscriminately order repolls simply because there are complaints. We will be inviting extra scrutiny… This is very delicate area and we have to be very careful. Some kind of golden mean has to be found. What is important is to take proactive and pre-emptive action. For instance, on the complaint of one political party, we did recast our strategy of deployment of CRPF and asked returning officers to ask the candidates about their areas of concern. That was done in the last three phases of elections in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal etc. So once we get corroborative evidence, whatever best can be done will be done.
The EC took over a month to decide on a repoll in Mewat area. How much time will it take to decide on 3,000 booths in West Bengal?
Tomorrow is the last day. After that, what? So, wherever action could be taken, wherever there is need to take action, we will take action. It is never too late until the date of counting.
During the last few phases, it appeared to be a fight between the BJP and EC, rather than the BJP and Congress. The BJP was aggressively targeting the EC and you did not react on time.
There is a difference between a political party or a candidate and us. They have 24X7 time to make such statements and speeches, but it is not possible for us. The conduct of the elections and management of elections is our primary job. If we give interviews to TV channels from morning to evening, who will monitor the elections? There is a difference between what somebody can do and what the EC can do. It will not be proper for the EC to join every issue on a one-to-one basis. That is not my style and is not expected from a constitutional body.
During the UP Assembly elections in 2012, then CEC S Y Quraishi wrote to the Prime Minister after Union Minister Salman Khursheed’s outburst. Did you consider reacting to Modi in a similar manner?
Salman Khursheed was a Union Minister. You can write against a minister. But the other case is related to a leader of a political party, a campaign chief of a party. He had a grouse and was basically saying the EC is not doing anything on complaints of rigging etc. (His) manner of saying this may be different. I do not think the EC can go around complaining about people who are complaining against it. It is not the thing to do.
What went on behind-the-scenes? Did you, for instance, keep in touch with the Prime Minister or President when the attack was severe?
We are a constitutional, autonomous body. We can face any situation on our own. Normally we need not go to anyone else. We know what to do and how to act. If somebody makes a hate speech, I can tell him that you cannot. But if somebody complains against the EC, I do not think there is need to invoke powers under Article 324. It is for them to think whether their manner of complaint serves the institutional interest, national interest and the international image of Indian elections. I would assume that every leader of the country is responsible. They should also do some introspection.
This time, political parties — especially the BJP — seem to have spent huge sums on electioneering. Many parties have defaulted in submitting returns.
There is a limit on spending by candidates, but there is no limit on the expenses made by political parties. There is nothing one can do about that. There is no limit, so they will face no consequences. We will have to wait for 75 days after the elections to get details of their expenses. There is a lot to be decided in terms of transparency etc in the expenses of political parties and maintenance of their accounts. We have made a recommendation to the law ministry as part of electoral reforms.
Are the declarations on party expenses just a formality?
This is the first such election (in which parties have spent so much). And 75 days are not yet over, so we have to wait. The fact remains that we really do not have well-defined laws governing political parties. Either there should be well-defined laws, or it should be part of the Representation of the People Act.
Is the issue of curbing party expenses a priority for you?
Definitely. It is definitely a priority item for the commission. It will be taken up by us.
The EC has also not been successful in scrutinising the candidates’ affidavits and taking action against them for false declarations. The Income Tax department did not cooperate with the EC. Now the Supreme Court has given you a free hand. What mechanism will you devise?
The decision on the EC’s jurisdiction to probe the candidates’ poll expenditure accounts has come from the Supreme Court recently. This will certainly be a handle for the EC in tackling such cases in future.
What about the pending cases?
All the pending cases will be taken up.
On issues like the appointment of the new Army Chief and banning the Modi rally in Varanasi, there appeared to be no consensus in the EC, especially between you and H S Brahma.
All our meetings are conducted in a cordial and harmonious manner. No decision was taken with dissent. All our decisions were taken unanimously, even on Varanasi. The decision on the Army Chief issue was also unanimous. We carified the position even on March 27 that the government need not come to us. But when it did, we had to examine it carefully. I really do not think there is any substance in the argument that there is division in the commission.
The Congress has demanded that a part of the BJP’s expenses should be included in Modi’s individual expenses.
Getting the complaint is fine. The point is that there are very clear legal positions and rulings related to party expenditure and to what stage these expenses can be included in the candidates’ accounts. These are legal issues. It would not be proper to say anything or express views on it. The issue will have to be decided at a relevant time with relevant record.