Outgoing CEC O P Rawat explains what led to Mizoram CEO’s removal, admits social media a threat and that they are testing it in current polls, says EC will call for polls in J&K after assessing the climate, says India is ready but legal framework is needed for simultaneous elections, and expresses concern over electoral bonds.
Why O P Rawat?
Appointed Chief Election Commissioner in January this year, O P Rawat has had a busy tenure, conducting nearly nine state elections in less than a year. Besides, his term also saw the Election Commission being dragged into controversies — from questions over delay in the press conference to announce dates for Assembly elections to five states in October, to allegations of deletion of voters in a Delhi constituency by the Aam Aadmi Party. A retired 1977- batch MP-cadre IAS officer, Rawat hands over charge to the new CEC, Sunil Arora, today.
RITIKA CHOPRA: You served as the Chief Election Commissioner for about a year. What has been your biggest achievement, and have there been regrets?
It has been a year of elections — Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Karnataka, and now we have Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Mizoram. My resolve was to conduct free, fair and credible elections in all these states. So far, it has been good. In fact, Chhattisgarh, which is affected by LWE (Left Wing Extremism), had record polling. It was peaceful and there was a lot of enthusiasm among the voters. That is quite satisfying.
cVIGIL, the mobile application launched in Bengaluru during the Karnataka elections, helped voters report any violations of code of conduct. Through the application, the photo or video (of any violation) taken by a voter could be sent directly to the inbox of the returning officer or the district election officer concerned, who could then immediately verify the complaint, take action and respond within 100 minutes. In Bengaluru, we got 800 complaints. This time, during elections in the five states, we received nearly 7,000 complaints, of which 4,000 were verified and action was taken. This has given voters a lot of confidence.
RITIKA CHOPRA: Were there any reforms that you tried to push with the government but which didn’t go through?
We decided to review the whole legal framework of elections because the world has changed a lot since the Representation of the People Act, 1951. We set up a committee to review all the provisions (of the Act) and align them with the present ecosystem — social media, paid news, fake news, abuse of money. These factors are influencing elections adversely, not only in our country but all over the world. The committee reviewed the laws and made recommendations. But, there were so many elections this year that we have not been able to go through the recommendations and finalise the legal framework needed for the next two-three decades, and then forward them to the Law Ministry for further amendments. That is one regret I will be taking along with me.
RITIKA CHOPRA: You have often spoken about the use of money power in elections. It has been two years since demonetisation. Has it had any effect on black money?
Absolutely nothing. After demonetisation, we seized a record amount of money during elections. Even in elections to these five states, seizures have been close to Rs 200 crore. It shows that money during elections is coming from sources which are very influential and are not affected by such measures.
RITIKA CHOPRA: In Mizoram, you were forced to remove your officer S B Shashank after protests. Will that set a bad precedent? In future, there could be more such demands for removal of officers seen as inconvenient or against the interests of a certain section?
The issue was linked to the Bru community. There was some violence in 1997 and nearly 30,000 Bru people fled to Tripura from three districts in Mizoram. At the time, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Mizoram government realised that these people could not go back to the state and so camps were set up in Tripura for their stay. These camps have been there since ’97. During elections, these people voted through postal ballots and then polling stations were set up in the border areas of Mizoram. In the last four years, however, the Commission was not able to enroll youngsters who had attained the age of 18 on the electoral rolls. There was resistance. People said they should either come back to Mizoram or be enrolled as Tripura citizens.
When Mr Shashank was sent there, he exercised a very cautious approach by taking into confidence Mizoram’s civil society and the Bru groups. He ensured that all youngsters who had attained the age of 18 in the last four years were enrolled — 1,280 such voters were enrolled. Suddenly, one of the Mizo organisations felt that the battle had slipped out of their hands. The principal secretary (Home, Lalnunmawia Chuaungo) there, who was on deputation from Gujarat, interfered and ensured that many applications of enrollment are rejected. We asked them to file an appeal. When appeals were being heard and certain documents by the Home Ministry were being used as identity documents, he (Chuaungo) said that the documents should not be used. That was another interference. Later, he wrote to the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) saying, ‘Why did you call for Central paramilitary forces without consulting the Home Ministry?’. That was direct interference in the election process and no state official is entitled to do that. That is when the Commission directed the state government to relieve him.
His (Chuaungo’s) supporters unleashed a social media campaign in Mizoram and the CEO could not counter that. They argued that whatever he (Chuaungo) has been doing so far was legal and constitutional. But stopping enrolment of eligible voters is unconstitutional and illegal, nobody should do that. He was doing that. That’s a big example of how big campaigns can turn the tables, even if there is no fault of yours. Then he (Shashank) told me that he would not like to continue. I asked him to come over to Delhi and meet me. The events after that are known to all.
RAKESH SINHA: Was the J&K Governor right in dissolving the Assembly without giving any party a chance to form the government? And, as I understand, immediately after the dissolution of the Assembly, your code of conduct kicks in and the person in charge of the caretaker administration is not authorised to take any decision. Yet, a day after the dissolution of the Assembly, the Governor brought J&K Bank into the public sector. What are your views on that?
The Election Commission cannot comment on the Governor’s actions. It would be encroaching on someone else’s jurisdiction. About the code of conduct… the S R Bommai vs Union of India (1994) judgment was used when the Telangana Assembly was dissolved. The Commission issued the order that the day you dissolve the Assembly prematurely, and you continue as a caretaker government, in view of going to polls, the code of conduct will apply to you. The EC will decide when to hold elections to a dissolved Assembly — on the very first occasion available or within six months. In case of J&K, the Commission will take a call at an appropriate time after assessing the climate and preparedness. I don’t think the situation in the state can be compared to Telangana.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: In your opinion, should the current practice of the President appointing EC members, on the advice of the Council of Ministers, the right mechanism? Does it hamper keeping political executives at a distance and ensuring the institution’s independence?
If the process is transparent and objective, that would be a welcome change. But to say that creating rules, regulations and laws will ensure that those picked up from the system will not be fallible… there is no evidence to prove that. While hearing the case, the Supreme Court noted that though the Constitution has provided for making appointments to the EC according to a law enacted by Parliament, such a law has not been enacted after all
ABANTIKA GHOSH: There has been a lot of talk about the inefficiency of EVMs. Many believe they are compromised. What is the EC doing to restore people’s faith?
We have launched campaigns for voter awareness in several public places — malls, museums etc. We have sent our EVMs and VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) machines across and asked people to come and vote and then count slips, so that they develop full confidence. Ninety-nine per cent of the parties support EVMs. When we asked political parties to come and check the EVMs, only two of them came and even they said that they had come only to learn about the machines. Then, we put up the EVM ‘Status Paper’ on our website, which has answers to all the doubts and questions. It also has inquiry reports about all incidents.
Some ask why is it that developed countries are not using EVMs? Some say it does not have Internet access and so it is obsolete. Yes, it is obsolete and that is why it cannot be tampered with. It cannot be connected to the Internet and so there is no chance of any hacking. The Indian EVM is unique.
During one of the bypolls, one senior politician said, ‘We’re winning, but EVMs will make us lose’. When the results came, he won. Then, he said, ‘We would have won with more votes, but couldn’t because of EVMs’. So you can see what these allegations against EVMs mean.
ABANTIKA GHOSH: Have you come across incidents of EVM tampering in your tenure?
No. Long ago, there was a case of EVMs being stolen. Our attempts at tracing them did not fructify. The case is still under investigation. I think it was in Assam and Madhya Pradesh.
KAUNAIN SHERIFF M: Do you support simultaneous elections and is India ready for it?
India has been ready since Independence, and we have had simultaneous polls in 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967. Only after 1967, state governments got dismissed, there were no-confidence motions and Assemblies were dissolved. So India has always been ready. But to bring Assemblies in sync you have to change the Constitution and the laws; it’s not in place. Firstly, you’ll have to change five Articles of the Constitution — sections of the Representation of the People Act. Then, the issue of logistics comes up. Once the legal framework is in place, we can say that so many poll personnel, machines, companies of paramilitary etc will be required. All that can be arranged in one year. But we first need to have a legal framework.
At any point in time, we have one million polling stations. Right now, we are managing all elections with just about 17 lakh machines. Now, if you have simultaneous elections, we will need 34 lakh machines; double of what we have. And then you have to maintain the inventory for five years, without any use. So, instead of savings, there may be losses and the costs could get higher.
KARISHMA MEHROTRA: From your perspective, in the context of threats to free and fair elections from social media, what is the most difficult thing for the EC to monitor?
Social media has emerged as a potent threat to elections globally. Governments are perplexed as to what to do about it. They can’t wriggle out of it. India has taken the initiative to talk to all the social media platforms — Google, Twitter, Facebook etc. All of them have assured us that during the election campaign period, they will ensure that their platforms don’t affect the polls adversely, and that they will flag advertisements, names of sponsors, money paid for advertisements… Also, during the last 48 hours before the conclusion of the polls, called the ‘silence period’, they will not allow anything adverse on their platforms.
We tested this during the Karnataka elections, as a pilot, and found that the impact of social media was negligible. We are testing it in the five election states this time as well. The potency of social media in Mizoram showed that if we’re not alert, if our machinery is not monitoring it regularly and closely, then there may be a lot of adverse impact. So, we need to be alert. We have a social media hub in the Election Commission. We are monitoring these (platforms) regularly.
MOHD UJALEY: What are some of the reforms that you want to see in the EC?
We have to do a lot. Harvard University’s Electoral Integrity Project brought out a series on elections worldwide. The 2014 general elections were rated as having ‘moderate-integrity’ with a score of 59 out of 100. On nine out of the 11 parameters used for determining the integrity index, our score was 72 — ‘very high integrity’. On two counts, campaign finance and media issues, we scored very poorly — 34 and 37 respectively. We need to do a lot on those fronts.
SOURAV ROY BARMAN: On November 2, you met Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal over the alleged deletion of voters in Lal Kuan and Harkesh Nagar areas of Tughlakabad constituency in the Capital. Eleven teams were set up to conduct a door-to-door survey and verify the names. What were the findings of the survey?
The CM had requested the Commission that all those deletions be put in the public domain, on the website, and meanwhile a verification process in Lal Kuan and Harkesh Nagar be done so as to satisfy the stakeholders that nothing wrong had happened. The Commission took both the issues seriously and immediately ordered that all deleted data should be collected since 2015 and put on the website. That process is on and within a few days you will have all the data.
Secondly, 11 teams were constituted, with videography and members of all political parties present. When they (AAP) found that every claim was being proven wrong, they said the inquiry is farcical… that some wrong list has been brought. We have no answer to that… the exercise stopped there.
RITIKA CHOPRA: The EC was waiting for political parties to submit their audited accounts to assess the impact of electoral bonds. You have not received them. However, even then, the concerns of the EC would remain because you still wouldn’t know the source of their income.
When the election bonds were brought in through the Finance Bill of 2017, the EC raised its concerns with the Law Ministry. We said that it would result in more opacity in political funding and allow for loss-making companies to donate their money, because of the removal of the company law provision that allowed for only 7.5 per cent of the profit of the last three years to be donated. And, when you don’t know the source, anyone can give money. All the grey areas and concerns were flagged by the EC.
At the time, we were told it was premature, as the scheme was not formulated and the implementation had not started. So the EC decided to wait. The scheme was notified on January 2, 2018. Now, contribution reports and audited accounts are being submitted by most parties, except for one or two. The EC has asked the Secretariat to work out whether the concerns raised in 2017 have been addressed. If yes, to what extent? And, if no, then what should we tell the government to do about it. We have been briefed about it to some extent, but more details are to be gathered and then they will bring the case to the EC again.