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Election Commission chief Om Prakash Rawat interview: ‘Withdrew Rahul Gandhi notice as it would criminalise many’

New Chief Election Commissioner discusses Gujarat elections dates, AAP MLAs’ disqualification and criticism of EC with Ritika Chopra.

Written by Ritika Chopra | New Delhi | Updated: January 23, 2018 9:56:29 am
Election Commission, EVM tempering, Rahul Gandhi case, om prakash rawat, om prakash rawat cec, AAP MLA disqualification, ak joti, AAP office-of-profit case, AAP MLA case, Indian express Chief Election Commissioner Om Prakash Rawat

In the last few months, there has been strong political opposition to the Election Commission and its integrity has been questioned. As the new CEC, how would you address that?

The commission has always been acting neutrally, based on objective facts. This is why the EC has earned a name globally. Dr. R C Guha [Ramchandra Guha], in one of his speeches. has said that if there is one achievement of India at 70, it is conduct of free, fair and credible elections. Whenever you are acting as a referee in a match, in which winning can get you the throne and losing can leave you in the dumps, these things [accusations] are bound to be there. These days, if anyone accepts their fault, the person is guillotined. In politics if you do that, you are finished. So they have this compulsion that instead of owning the responsibility for the loss, somebody should be brought in as a scapegoat, whether that is the EVM or some other thing.

But the nature of accusations and attacks have changed, from being veiled to more direct, with political parties accusing the EC to be acting at the behest of the Prime Minister. What would you want to do to address that?

Despite this, I admire the stakeholders for contributing to our thriving democracy. Since media and social media have emerged to be such powerful tools, I think the commission will make use of these platforms to ensure that information on all these issues is disseminated in a way so that perception is formulated based on all facts and not only on one side of the story.

Read | AAP MLAs should have asked Election Commission for hearings, didn’t: CEC Om Prakash Rawat

Do you still stand by the EC’s decisions to delink the announcement of the Gujarat polls from that for Himachal Pradesh?

The commission always takes such decisions based on ground realities of preparedness. We also take into account the suffering of people. So, in Kashmir when we saw that the Srinagar bypoll had witnessed violence, we immediately postponed the other byelection. In this case [Gujarat] the state administration has pointed out that relief and rehabilitation [for floods] was in the last phase. We have to remember that once elections are announced, the priorities of the state officials shift. They are the pivotal machinery for delivering relief and rehabilitation and conducting the elections. So when it [Gujarat government’s request to delay announcement of polls] was brought to the commission’s notice, we did not take a decision immediately. We visited Gujarat to see for ourselves whether the ground realities match with what has been reported to us. The commission’s assessment was that whatever the chief secretary has reported [was correct] and a few more days should be given.

But a reality check by journalists showed that relief work in worst-affected districts in Gujarat was long over…

Maybe in some districts work may have been over. But we had discussions [with state officers] and Mr Joti [then CEC] belongs to Gujarat. An assessment was taken jointly by all of us. One cannot go beyond that.

READ | Who is Om Prakash Rawat?

In hindsight, did the gap of two weeks between the announcement of the Gujarat and Himachal polls make any difference? During the gap, the state government announced projects and doled out sops…

As far as the announcements are concerned, these could have been made even before we announced the poll schedule. These are simplistic assumptions, thinking that our electorate has not matured enough. My experience of the last two years is that the Indian electorate has matured to an extent that even distribution of money in a constituency does not influence the final vote.

Isn’t it a better idea to exempt all relief work from the model code of conduct, like the EC did in the Jammu & Kashmir elections, rather than delay announcement?

The MCC [model code of conduct] says that whatever is existing can be carried on without any reference to the EC. But that doesn’t take into account all kinds of circumstances and eventualities that emerge in the aftermath of a natural calamity. Then [quick] decision making is required. Hands [of officers] do get tied to some extent [when the MCC is in effect]. I can’t say much about J&K election because I wasn’t part of the EC then.

Was the EC’s withdrawal of an MCC notice to Congress president Rahul Gandhi during the Gujarat election a tacit acknowledgment of wrong judgment?

It was not that. It was because of criminalisation of a large number of people. A large number of channels had broadcast that interview and it was shared on social media and YouTube. We can’t file an FIR against some and let the others be. So we decided to try to align this provision with development of technology.

You helped in drafting the Election Commission’s final opinion on the office-of-profit matter against AAP MLAs. In hindsight, do you regret your recusal from all AAP cases?

Not regret, but I have learnt a lesson. One should not take such decisions on the spur of the moment. One should mull over it, weigh all pros and cons, take some time and only then… This [job] is a different ball game as we are dealing with politicians who are trying to score points and survive. They will resort to everything at their disposal and even innovate.

So was this an emotional decision?

I have always been that way. I always act after weighing whether my action will demean me in my own eyes. I don’t care what others think. That is why I felt that here is a chief minister [Arvind Kejriwal] who came with such as huge mandate and I must give him the opportunity to satisfy himself that justice is being done by the commission. So I recused myself.

In its submitted opinion, the EC has indirectly accused AAP of stalling proceedings in the office-of-profit matter. Do you personally agree?

One can’t say [definitively] because there is nothing as proof. The only thing [we have] is that the sequence of events, as they happened, show that maybe, yes, it was [trying to stall]. You [AAP] did this [accused Rawat of being biased] by way of an interview without any basis. Then you took the plea that since there is no quorum you cannot hear [the matter]. If you put two and two together, it makes four.

Shouldn’t the EC have held at least one hearing on the merits of the office-of-profit case before finalising its opinion?

Absolutely no, unless they have mentioned it [in their written response]. They have argued on points such as lack of [EC] quorum, which circumstances show was because of you [AAP]. Similarly, they spoke of their challenge [to the June 23, 2017, order] being heard in court. There was no stay by the court on the EC’s proceedings. Why mention all this when it is already known to the commission? You have to tell us what you want. This is precisely why the commission issued them a notice. Hearing doesn’t always mean [being heard] one-to-one. You make your arguments in writing and provide evidence through documents. Who stopped them?

But the EC’s order of June 23 states the next date of hearing will be intimated to the concerned parties…

These [two] notices were issued only for that. If they felt the need or imperative for oral evidence, they should have pointed it out and we would have fixed a date for hearing. But you [AAP] are not talking of that. You are talking of something that is already known to the commission.

Political parties have raised concerns about the EC announcing bypolls separately. Why has the EC started doing this? Why have an Ajmer (Lok Sabha bypoll already announced) versus Gorakhpur (not announced) situation?

Earlier, we didn’t have so many by-elections. Second, because of new technology, some states have started updating their electoral roll digitally. So the roll in some states are ready much before others.

Our Constitution states that no election can be conducted unless an updated electoral roll (till January 1 of the respective year) is prepared. Uttar Pradesh’s 2018 electoral roll will only be published on February 9 (and hence could not be announced with Ajmer).

The Prime Minister, in a recent interview, spoke about the need to have a unified electoral roll for conducting all elections (panchayat, municipal, state and Lok Sabha polls) in the country? What do you think of this suggestion?

Preparation of electoral rolls is time consuming and requires resources. Officials like the BLOs, SDROs and SDMs have to spend time preparing and updating separate electoral rolls for panchayat, municipal and state/Lok Sabha elections. It (PM’s suggestion) should be looked into and let us hope something works out. Such things can only be done with political consensus.

The judiciary is under stress and the executive is very powerful. What do you think is EC’s role at such a point?

EC’s role is very limited. It is an agency for maintaining electoral rolls and conduct elections in a free, fair and transparent manner. That’s where our role stops. The issue you are raising has many more dimensions and it has to do with overall governance and constitutional systems like judiciary and executive. As for the commission, I can say with confidence that it will always strive to maintain electoral rolls with purity and deliver free, fair and credible elections.

What are your views on on electoral bonds?

We are studying what has been notified [by the government]. Currently, our stand remains the same.

But your predecessor A K Joti had called it “one step in the right direction”…

I think that may have been a spur-of-the-moment remark.

What is your view on appointment of Election Commissioners through a collegium?

That is not for us to comment because we are a creature of the current system. Let our lawmakers put their heads together and decide.

In your speech at an event last year, you had spoken out against the creeping new normal of political morality as parties try to win elections at all costs. How can the EC address that?

Whatever is with the domain of the EC, within Article 324 to 329 of the Constitution, that we will always strive to accomplish. Beyond that we cannot encroach upon other jurisdiction and do anything.

What are your priorities as the new Chief Election Commissioner?

Topmost priority is continuing the golden traction of the Election Commission of India, which has earned a global image for itself by delivering time and again fee, fair and credible elections.

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