During his term in office till July 2017, newly-appointed Chief Election Commissioner Dr Nasim Zaidi will be overseeing as many as 11 state assembly elections. In this e-mail interview to Raghvendra Rao, Zaidi talks about his priorities and the challenges at hand.
What are going to be your priority areas as the Chief Election Commissioner?
The Commission would strive to deliver upcoming elections which are spotlessly free, fair, peaceful and transparent based on errors free and authenticated electoral roll with higher level of participation and inclusiveness of voters. The Commission will focus on voter-centric activities from simple and easy enrolment to enabling voters with e-services.
Commission would develop a vision Document-2025 based on ICT to transform ECI into e-Governance mode in roll and poll management and to provide e-services to voters. The EC will also formulate a strategic plan for 5-10 years incorporating measures and initiatives for institutional strengthening, voter education, leveraging information technology and more efficient election operations.
What do you think are the biggest challenges confronting the conduct of elections in India? How do you propose to deal with them?
The first area of challenge is to conduct free and fair elections based an errors free electoral roll. Even today there are errors, mismatches, multiple entries and other discrepancies in the electoral rolls. Also enrolment of all the eligible electors is equally major task. Recently the Commission has launched the National Voters Purification and Authentic Programme wherein Aadhar number of a voter is linked to the EPIC to screen out multiple entries on the basis of uniqueness of Aadhar number. This is being done on an All India Portal. This will be taken to its logical end by publication of multiple entry free electoral roll on 1st January 2016.
The other major challenge is the abuse of money power in elections. The Commission has launched various efforts to minimize the role of money power in elections. We have been monitoring the expenditure of candidates and political parties in the elections. In coming years more sustained efforts will be made towards this end through enforcement of anti-corruption laws, RTI, strict disclosure norms as per transparency guidelines issued by ECI for political parties and electoral trust and curb on paid news. Low voters turnout in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections has been matter of concern. ECI through SVEEP I and II has spread awareness and contributed to increase in voters turnout in past 5 years. ECI will evolve SVEEP-III to not only, sustain but further enhance higher electoral participation in future elections.
Transparency in funding of parties and use of money power remain areas of serious concern in polls and disturb level playing field. What do you think can be done to tackle this?
The Commission is seriously concerned about the growing influence of ‘Black Money’ in recent elections. Vote buying and inducement of voters is a major challenge where black money is used. The menace of black money in elections can be tackled by strict enforcement of Anti Corruption laws, RTI and effective disclosure norms. Opaque anonymous donations have far more serious repercussions than corporate funding and need to be addressed. To begin with, we must have transparency in such contribution to political parties.
Do you think there is a need to put a cap on the expenditure a political party can undertake during elections? How difficult would it be to implement such a cap?
First of all, let us look at the current cap on candidates expenditure. Whether the current legal cap on candidate’s expenditure is realistic or not, can be known from the reporting of expenditure by the candidates. Eighty percent of candidates show less than 80% of the ceiling, whereas they could have shown expenses up to the ceiling.
The ceiling for 2009 Lok Sabha election for a candidate was Rs. 25 lakh, which was enhanced to Rs. 70 lakh for 2014 election. While enhancing the limit, representations were received from some national parties and citizens, that how can an ordinary citizen contest election? How many people in India can afford Rs. 70 lakh? Therefore, we have to take a balanced view. I do not think that accounts are fudged only because there is unrealistic ceiling. I ask a question, whether the candidate who says he has spent in crores, will disclose the entire amount, if there is no cap? In all probability, he will not disclose as most of it is unaccounted money or money from prohibited sources. Therefore, it is a myth to presume that if there is no cap or cap is further enhanced, the entire election expenditure will come over ground. Do you think, the amount spent on liquor or vote buying will ever be disclosed.
Currently political parties do not have any ceiling on their election expenditure and party oriented campaign expense is not included in candidate’s expenditure. Now coming to expenses incurred by political parties, data shows huge expenditure by parties which have more funds. Though parties spend money on party campaign and propaganda, it also goes to benefit the candidate of that party. Unequal funding of political parties disturb the level playing field. This subject require more debate on aspects such as limits, mechanism to implement the same, avoidance of actual reporting etc., by political parties before we came to any conclusion.
How serious do you think is the menace of paid news? Do you think paid news needs to be made an electoral offence? If yes, why hasn’t it happened despite EC having talking about it several times?
The phenomenon of Paid News has assumed worrying proportion as a serious electoral malpractice as shown by number of cases identified as paid news in elections in five years, and has caused concern to the Commission in the context of conduct of free and fair elections. It circumvents election expenditure limits, disturbs level playing field and acts against the voters’ right to correct and objective information.
The Commission has already proposed to the Ministry of Law & Justice, Govt. of India for the amendment in the Representation of the People Act, 1951, to provide that publishing and abetting the publishing of ‘Paid News’ for furthering the prospect of election of any candidate or for prejudicially affecting the prospect of election of any candidate be made an electoral offence with punishment of a minimum of two years imprisonment. Law Commission has also recommended recently that paid news be made an electoral offence by any person including a company and also be made corrupt practice under RP Act including disclosure of political advertisement. The issue is pending with the Govt. of India.
Do you think online voting is an idea India should seriously explore? Is the EC already in process of trying it out?
As of now, the position of the Commission is that internet/online voting can be considered in long term only. ECI will continue to explore this on long term basis. In short term, a variant in the form of E-postal ballot paper (one way) for NRI may be implemented by ECI once enactment is made. This itself is a major step in the direction. Commission will remain open to infusion of IT in these areas after due consideration.
Are you amenable to idea of having a national trust under the EC to hold and disburse money donated by corporates to political parties for election purposes? How difficult or easy would it be to implement an idea like this?
During recent ECI’s National Consultation, one of the suggestions of the stake-holders was to set up have a National Electoral Trust under the management and control of ECI, which will be funded by corporates and government. It was also recommended that direct corporate donations to political parties should be banned. The idea of National Electoral Trust, which in turn can fund indirect in kind subsidies on the basis of a formula, agreed mutually by all parties can be further studied and debated.
Is EC in favour of using “totalizers” with EVMs? How soon could we see these devices being introduced?
Yes, EC is in favor of using “totalizers” with EVMs. The Commission has already sent a proposal to the Government of India to amend the Act/Rule suitably for introduction of Totalizers with EVMs. Totalizer will be introduced with EVMs as soon as the Government of India amends the Act/Rule for using totalizers with EVMs. Now Law Commission has also recommended on the subject.
Why do EVMs continue to generate controversy each time there are polls? How safe and tamper-proof are EVMs and what can be done to dispel doubts about them?
Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) is totally tamper proof electronic device and both mechanically and electronically protected to prevent any tampering/manipulation. The programme (software) used in these machines is burnt into a One Time Programmable/Masked chip (Hardware) so that it cannot be altered or tampered. During the polls, some people on the basis of hearsay, lack of information about EVM or just for the sake of raising controversy or unaware of technology used in EVM raised doubt on the EVMs.
The Commission always has given opportunity to establish their allegation. So far no one has demonstrated any tamperability in ECI owned EVM before the Commission. EVMs have been successfully used in all elections held since 1998, General Elections to Legislative Assemblies held since, 2000 and House of the People held in 2004, 2009 & 2014. Judicial pronouncements have also upheld transparent working of EVMs.