V S Sampath, whose eventful term as Chief Election Commissioner ends Thursday, discusses high turnouts in recent elections, party funding and convicted lawmakers in this interview to Maneesh Chhibber & Raghvendra Rao
What were your priority areas when you took over?
One of my priority areas was moving towards an inclusive electoral roll. I had seen people complaining about non-inclusion of names. Though general elections were held just a few months back, we held special summary revision for states such as Haryana, Maharashtra and Jammu & Kashmir to enable all left-out voters to join. As we went along, we also wanted to shift from being a politician-centric watchdog to becoming a voter-centric and facilitating body — making it easy to register, easy to correct, easy to delete, easy to change are all part of this voter-centric attitude. Another major initiative is distribution of photo-voter ID slips to all voters at their doorstep. Also, for the first time, we increased the polling hours nationally to 11 hours.
Why do you think such a huge number of voters, particularly the affluent section who didn’t use to voter earlier, came out this time?
Gradually, people are realising that you should have participation in governance. The kind of nonchalance that people had earlier is no longer there. Secondly, the facilitation measures taken by the EC — online registration, increase in number of polling stations —are contributory factors. But the main factor was awareness among voters, which we have stimulated through our Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation.
Why has transparency in funding of parties not kept pace with other electoral reforms?
In electoral reforms, the one way funding can be addressed is by having reforms for parties. Today, if you see the structure, there’s a limit on candidates’ spending… there is no limit on parties’ spending. And today with the kind of reach the electronic and print media have, the distinction between a candidate’s campaign and a party’s campaign is very limited. Having put a limit only on the candidates’ spending and not on political parties’ spending, we have really created an imbalance, disturbed the level-playing field between parties with access to resources and parties that don’t have access to resources.
What can be done to change this?
Parties too should be brought within the ambit of the limits… there should be some reasonable limit to the money they can spend per constituency. Also, there is very loose control over parties — the EC has power only to register a party; we don’t even have the power to deregister a party. In so many cases where people are making hate speeches, people go to the courts saying the EC is not taking action to deregister the party. We tell them, we don’t have powers. There should be comprehensive legislation. Also, there should be some detailed guidelines enshrined in law regarding fundraising by parties, maintenance of accounts, how money is distributed to candidates, how they spend. In our own way, [with the help of] Article 324, we have issued some transparency guidelines.
A lot has happened in relation to paid news during your term. Since the issue is well understood now, do you think politicians and parties will be more careful?
They are definitely more careful. But our measures against paid news are still not complete though they are comprehensive. There is no legislative framework to deal with paid news. We are dealing with it only from an expenditure angle. And what candidates do is that they provide a cushion in their expenditure limit for such paid news cases that are detected. They make the [adjustment to accounts] and there are no other consequences… Paid news should be made an electoral offence, which it is not. We have already recommended…
On convicted lawmakers, are you satisfied with the government’s response so far?
As of now, the Supreme Court’s orders stand. But the order is only for people who are convicted for certain sentences that [make them fit] for disqualification. The enabling provision of protection for the remainder of their term has now been taken away with the SC order. To that extent, it is an improvement over the previous situation. The other basic issue that is still unresolved is about people who are accused, against whom charges have been framed by a competent court and they are pending. That is something that is in the domain of the legislature. Our stand on this is very well known. We have always said that those charged with offences for which the sentence is more than five years, and where charges are framed at least six months before the scheduled date of an election, at least they should face disqualification from contesting the election. It is before the lawmakers; they have to decide.
What are you views on having a collegium system to select election commissioners?
I was myself selected and appointed through a certain system. I would think it would be very unfair for me to question the system through which I came. However, anything that ensures transparency in these appointments would be good. Let it be debated by lawmakers.
Do you feel the model code of conduct should have statutory backing?
The model code is to provide an immediate solution, an instant remedy to certain situations. It has always been our stand that if you make the model code a judicial remedy, the time in which the remedy can be made available would be much longer. Model code administration by the EC is not a standalone one. If you make a hate speech, a complaint can be filed under the relevant provisions of IPC and CrPC… if you misuse a religious place, again there is a separate law that governs that. There is no need to make the model code a law. This system has worked well for decades. When a notice for a model code violation is issued, we give 48 hours for a reply, and the reply is usually in by the 47th hour, however big a politician may be. One may say we only censure or reprimand but that is not the point. Parallelly, under the laws of the land, action will be taken.
EVMs continue to generate controversies every poll. What more can be done to end these doubts?
The extent or intensity of noise over EVMs is much less after these elections as compared to the last elections. All this trouble happens when you have poll forecasts. When the result is broadly according to the poll forecast, there is no complaint against EVMs. When it is the reverse, people start saying that the EVMs were manipulated. This is my very broad understanding of the situation.
Is VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) the answer to this?
The SC has ruled that VVPAT should be used. We have made a proposal to the government for funds so that before the next parliamentary election, the whole country can be covered by VVPAT.
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