Nasim Zaidi speaks with Ritika Chopra on his stint as the Chief Election Commissioner less than a week before his retirement. Excerpts:
How do you rate your term?
Very good and satisfying. There were many opportunities to undertake a lot of initiatives in election management including internationalisation of our practices.
What are the challenges you foresee for the EC in future?
There are four major challenges. Achieving the constitutional obligation of adult franchise is the first challenge. This means inclusive elections. There are many sections which are excluded at this moment such as NRIs. Second, the number of voters in India will touch 100 crore in the next eight to 10 years. That by itself will throw up many logistical challenges. Third, the Commission has to ensure that ruling parties do not gain asymmetrical advantages, which can only be done by proper enforcement of the model code of conduct. The biggest challenge, however, is abuse of money (power) and transparency of election campaign funding.
Of the electoral reforms during your term, which one, based on your experience, is the need of the hour?
Transparency of political funding. The Commission — and I personally — would have been happy if this area had received a fillip.
Do you think official caps on election expenses are unrealistic? What value does this cap have, except to encourage account fudging?
We have data to show that a majority of candidates report expenditure which is only 50 to 60 per cent of the ceiling. Who prevents them from at least disclosing their expenses up to the established limit? The ceiling debate is complicated because political parties spend money in the name of general propaganda to actually promote their candidate. We could raise the ceiling to Rs 2 crore, but is there a guarantee that candidates will start reporting their expenditure correctly even then?The present ceiling is meaningless if political parties are allowed to incur unlimited expenditure.
Was there any consultation between the government and the EC before the announcement on electoral bonds?
No. We feel this will impact transparency negatively. We have communicated our views to the Law Ministry. If the Finance (Ministry) writes to us, we will let them know our views as well.
What do you have to say about the government amending the Representation of the People Act (RP Act) through a Money Bill without consulting the EC?
I am nobody to comment on the Parliamentary procedure adopted. I am only concerned about the impact on transparency. There are certain areas in the RP Act where it is mentioned that the Commission should be consulted. It is in the law.
The government recently amended laws to make it easier for companies to fund political parties. What do you think of increasing corporate funding of elections.
The recent amendments to the Companies Act has done away with profit-making clause for companies to make donations. They also no longer need to disclose the break-up of contributions made to different parties. Of course, corporate funding will increase as there is no limit to how much they can donate. Loss-making companies will also qualify to make payments. People want to know details of corporate donors to check for quid pro quo, and if any benefits are passed on to such companies by the elected government. And we work for the people.
The Commission’s demand for contempt of court powers has attracted flak. Your comment.
There is a wrong perception that the EC doesn’t want any criticism of its functioning. I must make it clear that the Commission is ready to receive healthy and constructive criticism. But unfounded allegations are an area of concern. If political parties and their leaders behave responsibly then we don’t need such powers. Whatever they say must be backed with evidence. But to persist with unfounded allegations, aspersions and claims and not providing any proof is too much.
Were the EVM allegations bona fide or mala fide in your opinion?
The Commission has written to over 100 people asking for details of discrepancies found in polling stations, EVMs, and even names of officials who they suspect to have aided tampering. We have asked for copies of software which enable one to hack an EVM through a mobile phone. There have been no answers despite our requests. This was the most avoidable controversy. If these allegation were bona fide then they would have pointed out specific deficiencies.
With no party coming forward to prove its allegations of tampering, was the EVM challenge, in hindsight, a waste of EC’s time and resources?
No, it was worth it. This was the most civil way to deal with these allegations?
What did you think of your colleague’s (Election Commissioner O P Rawat) decision to recuse himself of all AAP-related matters? Would you have done the same?
This is a hypothetical question and I cannot answer. My colleague has already recused himself, and that is his decision. Why and under what circumstances, everyone knows already.
Was the EVM controversy a trying time for you as the CEC?
Yes, with people persisting with unfounded allegations, (it was) was a trying time for the Commission. People can get affected by uncontrolled tirade.