Election Commissioner H S Brahma defends the nine-phase LS polls and points out why it is finally up to political parties to discipline candidates. In this Idea Exchange, moderated by Senior Editor (Legal Affairs) Maneesh Chhibber, Brahma also outlines the logistics of elections in India.
D K SINGH: What is the reason behind these prolonged elections? Is there a security consideration or some other factor at work?
The Election Commission does not want a prolonged election. It has created tremendous amount of problem for the administration. But we are forced to have a nine-phase election — from April 7 to May 12. That is a big time frame. We are forced to do it because of two things: one is our inability to mobilise a large force. It is a country of 1.2 billion and our forces are limited. Second is that no political party, including the ruling party of a state, would like to have their own force be used 100 per cent for elections in that state. This is very unfortunate. Here, everything is done by the bureaucracy. It is unfortunate that political parties, candidates and even the ruling party of a state do not back their own forces. The Central government cannot provide more than 12-13 lakh people. The total strength of our forces is not more than 9 lakh. Also, there are five borders that cannot be left unattended. Technically, we can spare only about 4 lakh people. We have been handicapped by the fact that local candidates do not believe in local forces and we have to depend on Central forces.
COOMI KAPOOR: Surely the Central forces can be deployed in a manner that they can move faster from one area to another. The result of all this is that everything in the country, including the government, comes to a standstill during polls, because you are not supposed to take any decision. Don’t you feel that this can be tightened?
I agree. Barring Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Jammu and Kashmir, the central part of the country and Left- wing areas, the rest of the states — including Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka — do not require massive forces and you can reduce the time frame. But because of our restriction of movement of such a huge number of people, there is a constraint. Also, this is the season when people go on vacations. We have to take all this into consideration and there is also some sort of a physical fatigue in our boys. I can’t expect them to go to one place today and then leave for another the next morning. We have to plan it in such a manner that our boys should not feel any discomfort and at the same time we do not compromise on security.
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D K SINGH: Have you got any request from the government seeking the EC’s sanction for the appointment of the next Army chief?
No. The present Army chief is retiring on July 31. The authorities will take a decision next month. What is the hurry? They will probably announce it two months in advance.
RAJ KAMAL JHA: If they send you the file before May 16, will it be a violation of the model code of conduct?
May 16 is still far off. Appointment of the Army chief is a long-drawn procedure. There are many provisions. Let the matter come to us. I think the Government of India has several parameters and they will follow the procedure. If the Army chief is retiring on July 31, I am sure they can wait till the end of June before moving the file.
DILIP BOBB: We have seen the kind of language being used, the kind of vicious attacks and counter-attacks during this election. The model code of conduct does not seem to be very effective. People have been violating it without worrying about the consequences.
The code of conduct is just a model, sort of an agreement. We have around 1,600 political parties. The EC is the custodian of this agreement and we work on the behalf of political parties to discipline them. In case there is some gentleman who uses a wrong expression, we inform him that it is inappropriate. Almost 5,000-plus candidates are contesting from 549 parliamentary constituencies and they end up saying something against each other. If somebody uses abusive language, he should know that people are watching.
RAGHVENDRA RAO: How is Amit Shah’s case different from Azam Khan’s?
After we issued a notice to Amit Shah, within 24 hours he sent an apology. He gave his arguments, but at the same time said that he apologises sincerely and would never repeat such a thing in the elections. Azam Khan submitted his reply recently. He has also come down a lot from his earlier stand.
RAGHVENDRA RAO: Is an apology enough?
The EC is like a referee. More than the EC, it is the political parties which should take the responsibility for their candidates. Who selects the candidate? Who campaigns for the candidate? The political party. If the political party has a strong leadership, then the quality of discipline is better. The disciplining of a candidate is the responsibility of the chairman of his party. The EC can only implement the model code of conduct. The role of the political party is paramount.
D K SINGH: Regarding the legal limitations of the model code of conduct, do you feel it needs to change?
I can gather both strong opposition and strong support for this. We conduct elections in less than 60 days — from the day of announcement to the day of results. You convert rules of the Act into statuary provisions; for every small thing there will be a case in the court. How do you resolve the issue? I don’t know what kind of solution we can have for this.
D K SINGH: What is your opinion on this?
We have an open mind. We have not formed our ideas on what should be the structure or status of code of conduct, should we make it into a statute or not. I think there needs to be a debate on this; it should be studied in detail. Look at the sheer number and size of the country. How many violations were there? The more the civil society questions the behaviour of leaders, the day will not be far when we can manage candidates in public life.
Y P RAJESH: Are expenditure limits and affidavits that candidates declare while filing their nominations some sort of a gentleman’s agreement? Is there no way to crack down on candidates who spend much more than the limit?
Regarding the expenditure limit, I do agree. Political parties say they have more than a crore of rupees. We had a meeting with political parties and one party mentioned Rs 1 crore-plus. There is a rise in income, rise in expenditure, inflation. The limit of Rs 10 lakh which we gave earlier is now Rs 70 lakh. This is sufficient.
India is a cash economy, everything is paid in cash. There is no bar on carrying money. I can carry Rs 100 crore in my car, but no one will question me as long as I can give details pertaining to the source of income. Nowhere in the world this kind of thing is there. In India, if you give me cash, I am happy. That’s why there is a problem.
SHYAMLAL YADAV: Recently, the EC told us in an RTI reply that no action has been taken against candidates who have given false declarations, and the Income-Tax department is also not taking your advice seriously. What is the use of declaring assets then?
About the assets, you must have seen the Supreme Court’s March 2014 judgment. The affidavit you give has to be true. If the affidavit is found wrong or you have done something illegal, it can be a case in the tribunal, punishable with a jail term. There is definitely some teeth now; it is deterring people from giving wrong affidavits.
Maneesh chhibber: There was a controversy about Narendra Modi not declaring his wife during previous elections. This elections he has made it public that he is married. Did you receive any complaint about this misrepresentation and is there anything that the EC can do or could have done had it received such a complaint?
The 2009 elections were different from this one. Now the SC has said that you cannot leave anything vacant. You have to give every detail.
D K SINGH: Why do you need the wife’s name? Why not remove that column?
The world over you write your spouse’s name. I think it is fair.
VIJAITA SINGH: There was a representation from the IPS officers’ association seeking that online voting be allowed for Central police forces on election duty, and they had asked the EC if it could be done as a pilot project during the Assembly elections. Is there a proposal for online voting?
Right now it is not there, but the world is changing. I am sure there will be a tremendous change in the way we conduct elections, the way we vote. I am a strong supporter of using technology. There is a need for changes in rules. In India, earlier there was the ballot box. We changed it to EVMs. Now to change from EVMs to Internet, you have to delete EVMs from the Act. In the next 15-20 years, by the time we retire, you may be polling sitting at home, library or restaurant. The world is changing so fast in terms of communication and technology and these things will soon come.
RUHI TIWARI: EVMs have faced controversy, with the BJP claiming that the machines are not tamper-proof.
One of the biggest problems with the EVMs is that we are not physically able to see where the vote is going. If I talk as a common man, I feel empowered to put a paper in a machine which exactly tells me if I have pressed a button and whether the vote has gone to a figure. Once we introduced VVPAT (voter-verified paper audit trail), wherein you can press a button and see the printout, 99.9 per cent of the problems will disappear. We hope to do this in the next parliamentary elections.
ALEESHA MATHARU: Are you investigating the claims of booth capturing and rigging in Mewat and Rewari? Will action be taken on Yogendra Yadav’s claims?
There have been complaints. Three people can say if these are genuine — our observers in every booth, our booth level officers (BLOs) in police stations, and agents of political parties.
SANDEEP SINGH: While going through the affidavits of candidates, we found that 10 of them did not have bank accounts. When we called these people — they are from prominent parties — they said that they had bank accounts but did not disclose it because they are part of moveable assets.
If they have wrongfully, deliberately hidden something, the other candidates should file a case.
KAUNAIN SHERIfF*: In case of names missing from electoral lists, what is the way forward to bridge the gap?
I accept that it’s a problem. We have employed BLOs, who are normally permanent government employees, either retired government servants or existing PSU officials. If voters’ names are missing, it means that supervision was slack. A booth will not have more than 1,200-1,400 voters. In a city like Delhi, 1,200 voters can be found in two or three buildings. If BLOs are not able to survey two-three buildings, I don’t know what they are doing.
ROHIT alok*: What do you see as the EC’s victory in these elections?
Victory is away — May 16. May 7 is crucial as polling is happening in a lot of Left-wing extremism-hit areas.
ROHIT Alok*: Is there a decision you wish to reverse?
No. So far we have done a fairly good job.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: During the last Assembly polls in Punjab, heroin was used to lure voters. And this election, there have been unusually large seizures of drugs and cash. Is this a losing battle?
We have seized Rs 265 crore, almost 60 per cent of it in Andhra Pradesh. Free distribution of money and other things has been arrested to a large extent. I don’t say that we have controlled it 100 per cent. That will happen only when every Indian citizen becomes part of our team. There is a new system wherein anyone can give us information from Android or smartphones. This has been implemented since April 21. There needs to be much more alertness, more publicity and campaigning. I don’t think this menace can be controlled 100 per cent, but if we can control 70-80 per cent, we’ll be better off.
D K SINGH: What do you do with the cash that is seized?
It goes to government reserves, if nobody is claiming it. The expenditure of Government of India per parliamentary seat is about Rs 10 crore, which takes care of deployment, training, transfer, posting etc. The freebies recovered were worth
Rs 250 crore, but we can’t sell it because it is contraband. We recovered Rs 270 crore in cash. Our aim is to recover at least
Rs 300 crore.
DILIP BOBB: One lesson you have learnt from 2014 that would help in 2019?
One major lesson I have learnt is that one needs to be more alert. And the EC has to be upgraded technology-wise, response-wise.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Do you think this election has been the dirtiest in terms of language being used?
Yes. This kind of language must not be used. All over the world, people like Indians for our tolerance. Why should we use such words? Our neighbours are watching us. I had a Japanese delegation yesterday and they said that they watch our news. So it is not just 100 crore Indians, the entire world is watching these leaders. We call ourselves the largest democracy in the world; we should also have the moral responsibility to bring greatness to our country.
RAGHVENDRA RAO: This time we have had reports of polling staff being involved in alleged rigging. We have had instances from Bihar, Assam. How serious is the problem?
We have got complaints from Bihar, Assam and Uttar Pradesh, but the cases are very limited. We have to see what went wrong — maybe our choice of team was wrong. In certain areas, people become used to certain kinds of party workers. But that depends on the selection of our staff, our team at the ground level. In a district office, one can easily tell which officer is aligned to whom. This can be solved through a mechanical process. The person selecting them should be alert enough and smart enough to know.
Transcribed by Ananya Bhardwaj, Ruhi Bhasin & Sumegha Gulati
* EXIMS student