Updated: March 26, 2017 8:39:40 am
Allegations of EVM tampering by BSP chief Mayawati and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal during the recently concluded Assembly elections have reignited the transparency debate. Violations of the Model Code of Conduct and hate speeches during the elections have also turned the spotlight on the powers of the Election Commission and the need for electoral reforms. Two former chief election commissioners, S Y Quraishi and H S Brahma, defend EVMs and talk about the extent of the EC’s powers.
Former chief election commissioners S Y Quraishi and H S Brahma back Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail for transparency in voting, say simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies are “not feasible”, are optimistic about electoral reforms, and support a collegium system for recruitment to the election body.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What do you make of allegations by Mayawati and Arvind Kejriwal against EVM tampering and claiming lack of transparency in the voting process?
S Y QURAISHI: The Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machines have been created for exactly that reason — transparency. In fact, we had begun work on the system and, sometime in the middle of 2011, we conducted a dry run at five places in five different climatic zones — Kerala, Rajasthan, Leh, Delhi and Meghalaya. Now, VVPAT is an electro-mechanical device, and there are chances of it getting out of order sometimes. During elections, if these machines falter, there will be queues of 400 to 500 people, and they will think some hanky-panky is happening and that will create problems. We were worried about such dislocations.
I was also looking at the Supreme Court judgment, and they have given a clear direction to the government (on VVPATs). We need Rs 3,500 crore and the EC has written six or seven letters to the government, but they have not responded. Why the delay? The cost of
Rs 3,500 crore is peanuts when it comes to conducting elections in a transparent manner. This is something the government should look at immediately. What are they doing?
COOMI KAPOOR: But why has there been no progress on the EC’s 2013 assurance to the Supreme Court on implementing paper trails?
S Y QURAISHI: The EC said it would start the implementation in phases, and the SC agreed to it. (In 2013, the Supreme Court ordered the EC to implement the VVPAT system in a phased manner and the Commission had committed to have it in place by the time of the 2019 general elections.) We immediately started the process with 20,000 machines. Now, 66,000 more machines have been ordered, of which the EC has received half. The other machines will come in as and when the payments are made.
COOMI KAPOOR: Why is it that some countries in the West that were using EVMs have gone back to oldfashioned methods of counting votes?
S Y QURAISHI: We are talking of four European countries (that banned EVMs), and they were all using machines made in one place, that is, the Netherlands. We are not using those. So when the machine failed in one country, the others had to ban it. There was a case of cheating against Volkswagen but does that mean we should also ban Mercedes? Secondly, everyone is talking about the German Supreme Court which outlawed the EVMs, but no one has read the judgment. I have. It was done for a legal reason. Their Constitution demands that elections should be conducted in a transparent manner. When the voter presses a button, he cannot physically see his vote going to the candidate of his choice, which is why it (EVMs) was banned. The court didn’t say that the technology was bad.
Moreover, we don’t follow the German Supreme Court. We follow our Supreme Court, which, almost 25 years ago, during the Kerala state elections, had struck down the use of EVMs for legal reasons and not technical. The court had pointed out that the law does not have provision for the use of EVMs. We went to Parliament and got it incorporated in the Act and came back with a bang. We have been using these machines successfully for the past 20 years.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: Are people of the country losing faith in those who are manning institutions such as the Election Commission?
S Y QURAISHI: Yes, absolutely. Faith is the most critical element in the entire electoral system. Although we are the most powerful commission in the world, we have the most defective system of recruitment. We are appointed by the government of the day. Anyone can be appointed. It is a miracle that we have managed to retain the faith and trust of the people, but we cannot just hope for it to remain that way. Hope is never a strategy. The recruitment system needs to change. I was appointed by the same process and the one occasional finger which is raised against me is: ‘Oh, you are Congress appointee’. It hurts me.
H S BRAHMA: We need a system to ensure that the wrong person is not appointed. For most other institutions there are authorities and bodies to select people for the job. We need institutional safeguards as well.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: What is the best system to select election commissioners, and do you think time has come to accord the same status to all three commissioners?
S Y QURAISHI: Well, status-wise they are the same. The only difference is that the other two commissioners do not have protection from removal, and that too is because of historical reasons, not because the nation wanted to deny them that.
I think the best system (for selection of election commissioners) would be that done by a statutory body and a collegium. Then no one can question the appointments. Otherwise, the Opposition can always find faults, which is unfair to people who are honest. Doubts over fairness and neutrality are not good for their morale and functioning.
H S BRAHMA: Such a system (collegium) will ensure that all doubts about partiality are laid to rest. A protocol is a must for selection.
S Y QURAISHI: Appointment to the Election Commission should be through a collegium, and the elevation should be based on seniority, so that he (the commissioner) is not always concerned about whether the government is happy with him or not. The screening should happen at the entry level.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Of late, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been talking about simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state Assemblies. Is it possible?
S Y QURAISHI: Very desirable but very difficult constitutionally. It is not feasible… Remember how the Vajpayee government fell in 13 days. Suppose we have simultaneous elections, and the party that comes to power at the Centre loses majority because one member has switched over. In such a case, what happens to the 29 Assemblies where parties have come to power with a majority? Will you send them back for elections? Therefore it is not possible and feasible.
The Prime Minister gave two reasons for simultaneous elections. One that too much money was being spent on elections, and that there is too much dislocation. I agree with both. There is a third and fourth reason which he did not mention. The third reason is corruption, and the fourth is that before every election we have disharmony and a hate campaign.
LIZ MATHEW: There has been lot of talk about giving more powers to the Election Commission. Do you see it happening?
S Y QURAISHI: Once in Tamil Nadu, when there were reports of abuse of money and power, the elections were cancelled. It was a very bold move. Then they (the EC) demanded from the government that they be allowed to use Article 324, which is an atom bomb and cannot be used everyday. The EC wrote to the government and asked for the Article to be included in the Representation of the People Act — when we have credible evidence of misuse of money, we should be allowed to cancel the elections. The government rejected it. The letter was sent again after three months, but they rejected it again. So even after steps such as demonetisation, and the Prime Minister talking of electoral reforms, honesty and transparency, if the Law Ministry (the parent ministry of the EC) doesn’t know what the PM wants… They have simply rejected our demands.
Secondly, we don’t have the power to deregister political parties. Of the 1,900 parties, only 400 are active, the others are either dormant or dead. They should be eliminated. Some of them are there only for money laundering. We have been writing to the government for 20 years about the issue. I know they are not, in principle, against it, but they are so lethargic, they just don’t care. So you have these old, redundant, bogus parties mushrooming. I am optimistic. Narendra Modi is the first PM to talk about reforms, and he will probably see it through.
H S BRAHMA: Issues pertaining to muscle power, bullying, rigging etc have lessened since the introduction of EVMs. Now, if we give the Election Commission certain powers such as cancelling elections, the number of these cases will further reduce.
SHYAMLAL YADAV: In 2012, you had written to the then prime minister about the drug menace in Punjab. There has been a lot of discussion on the subject in the past year. What do you have to say about the situation in the state now?
S Y QURAISHI: About 1,000 kg of drugs were seized in 2012. At the time no one knew much about the problem. When we received feedback from the field, we called the director of the Narcotics Control Board, and formed a team. In 30 days, we seized 53 kg of heroin. All kinds of drugs were being used, it was a very serious matter and we did a lot of research.
Two-three months after the elections (in Punjab), we wrote a letter to Manmohan Singh, informing him about the situation. We got a routine response, that’s all. See, we don’t discuss the problem but everyone knows about it.
In the ’80s, I was the focal point for drug abuse education, and even then I noticed that we were living in a fool’s paradise. Drugs were available for Rs 70 a bottle… that’s when I realised this is a khatarnak mamla (dangerous issue). I informed the authorities that we were sitting on a dynamite, and that it takes little time for a transit country, which is what India was considered then, to become a user. Once you are hooked physically, you become the best carrier. For a free dose, you will get four of your best friends hooked. That’s how a transit country becomes a user country, and that is how the problem in Punjab has increased.
VANDITA MISHRA: The Akalis said there was no drug problem in the state, and Rahul Gandhi said 70 per cent of the youth in Punjab are addicts. What would be your assessment?
S Y QURAISHI: See, denial is absolutely wrong. The problem is widespread and serious, and there are addicts in several families now. Also, dealing with the problem is difficult, because once a person is addicted, he needs his dose. We should rise above politics and look at the problem seriously.
RITIKA CHOPRA: The EC’s censures seem to have no effect on political parties and candidates. Arvind Kejriwal was censured repeatedly for encouraging voters to accept bribes, but to vote for AAP, but there was no effect. Do you still feel that the EC is better off without statutory backing for the Model Code of Conduct at this point?
H S BRAHMA: The Model Code of Conduct is a double-edged weapon. But I feel that once you make the MCC a part of the legal statuette, it will lose grip over the situation. Someone will file a case in court, and things are over… Now there is still some control.
S Y QURAISHI: State backing to model code is very misleading and a mischievous suggestion. Say, if there are elections and someone files an FIR, the matter will be decided by the court in 15-20 years. The authority of the MCC should not be undermined. Now when we issue a notice to a politician, it makes headlines, and affects his public image. The next day he issues an apology. So, our censures still have power.
VANDITA MISHRA: During Punjab elections, Arvind Kejriwal made a series of very serious allegations against the Election Commission, like how you have surrendered all your autonomy and independence etc. Do you think the current commissioner in some manner should have responded or disciplined, or addressed the allegations that a sitting Chief Minister had made against the constitutional institution?
S Y QURAISHI: Unfortunately, we don’t have anything equivalent to the contempt of court. We are absolutely vulnerable. I don’t want to comment on what the CEC should have done, but then a statement by the CEC probably would have made Arvind Kejriwal reflect on his language.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: But similar statements came from Manohar Parrikar also, who was then the Defence Minister of the country. In case of Kejriwal there was censure, but in case of Parrikar the action wasn’t that strong. Do you think the Election Commission has a duty to be seen as transparent in dealing with every complaint and charge?
H S BRAHMA: Of course, that is what is expected of the institution. The same rules should apply to everyone. There can be no half-measures.
RAHUL TRIPATHI: For local body polls, some state governments have made a level of educational qualification mandatory for candidates, and courts have also endorsed it.
S Y QURAISHI: I am against it because I feel that instead of laying down qualifications we should leave something to the voter. We don’t debar criminals, and do this for local polls! There are no such rules for MLAs and MPs. Because of such rules, 80 per cent of women have been debarred. The Constitution demanded that within 10 years we must have universal elementary education. We failed on that front, and now since these people are not educated we debar them from contesting elections.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: You mentioned how the country gets into hate mode during elections. What about some of the speeches made by the new UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath? You said that if an FIR is filed, it will take the court 15-20 years to decide on the case. What is the way out then?
H S BRAHMA: In my opinion, the Election Commission should have taken a more firm stance (on hate speeches). A violation is a violation. Ultimately, it will be noted.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: You spoke about the freedom of the Election Commission, and that there should be a protocol for things. Now, election commissioners come from bureaucracy. Do you think that is also part of the problem?
S Y QURAISHI: Firstly, TN Seshan (former CEC, 1990-96) was also a bureaucrat. All of us have lived up to the country’s expectations. The same bureaucracy that is considered inefficient, lazy and corrupt, works when it comes under the Election Commission. In fact, bureaucracy is the secret of the Election Commission’s success.
RITIKA CHOPRA: You said that you are happy to see the Prime Minister talking of electoral reforms. At the same time, two significant reforms that the current CEC is pushing for very strongly — totaliser and 58B — the government has rejected both, not once but thrice.
S Y QURAISHI: There was a report that the Law Ministry may be opposing (the reforms) at its end, and that they don’t reach the Prime Minister. Rest, now that the PM is talking about it, something may come of it. I do hope that if opinion builds up, we will get the desired reforms.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: Do you think the rule that asks for campaigning to stop 48 hours before the elections has become redundant now?
S Y QURAISHI: Surprisingly, while every media is banned, print media is allowed in the period. One party publishes a full-page ad on the day of the polls every time. By the time you take cognisance of the matter, the damage is done. In fact one of the reform proposals pending with the government seeks for a 48-hour ban on all forms of media, including door-to-door campaigning, because that is when money can change hands.
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