Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra speaks to Ritika Chopra on the poll panel’s move to intervene in complaints of candidates filing false affidavits and how it is preparing to hold the first Assembly election amid a pandemic. Edited excerpts:
The EC has always encouraged complainants to approach courts directly regarding complaints of candidates filing false affidavits. What prompted the Commission to change its stand?
In a democracy, the voter has the fundamental right to know (the whole truth) about a candidate (contesting elections). Although all election affidavits are (already) referred to CBDT for verification, lately, several complaints of candidates lying in their affidavits have come to our notice. If the prima facie evidence is strong, then something has to be done. EC cannot be a mute spectator. So it was decided by the Commission that if there is a prima facie case of suppression of information regarding assets or liabilities or criminal antecedents, then we should send it to the respective (investigating) agencies for timebound investigation. If the investigation finds that the candidate has lied in his affidavit, then we will not hesitate in asking our field officer to file a complaint against the candidate. We can also inform the respective political parties and the presiding officer of the Assembly or House (to which the candidate was elected) that he or she has not filed correct information.
But the complainant will have to give us some evidence why he or she thinks a candidate has lied. It should not be a frivolous complaint, or it could be used to harass someone.
So this means the EC will not hesitate to go to court as well in case of false affidavits?
The case of falsifying an affidavit will be stronger (if EC is involved). There will be an investigation, and the evidence will be on file. The RO (Returning Officer) who will file the complaint will also go to court with evidence. But this doesn’t restrict the third party from going to court.
The EC has also asked the law ministry to increase the punishment for lying in the affidavit to two years. Are you renewing your push for that?
We had a meeting with the Law Ministry this year in which we pushed for it (the electoral reform) to be taken to a logical conclusion and that it should be accepted. We haven’t heard after that. They must be examining the issue.
You are the EC’s nominee to the Delimitation Commission for J&K. What is the status of the delimitation process?
We have had three meetings till date under the chairmanship of former Supreme Court judge Ranjana Prakash Desai. We had sought (2011) census data from the Registrar General of India based on which the delimitation will be done. On receiving that information, we have now asked the respective state election commissioners and chief electoral officers to map the census data against each administrative unit (panchayats, blocks, tehsil etc) by July 31. We will be able to complete the delimitation task within the (year’s) deadline.
Is the EC worried that the Covid-19 outbreak will affect the Bihar election turnout?
We don’t want the turnout to come down. We will make special efforts to ensure that it doesn’t. In Bihar, we have 72,000 polling stations, but we have decided to reduce the number of voters at each polling station to 1,000 as against 1,600, to ensure social distancing. So we will have to add 30,000 polling stations. We have also extended the facility of postal ballots to Covid patients and suspected cases. We had written to the Law Ministry that all persons above the age of 65 and those infected with the virus should be allowed to vote via postal ballots. The Law Ministry has agreed. We are working out the other procedures how a person will notify the RO that he or she wants to vote by postal ballots. The RO will examine the request and allow the voter’s request. This person will not be allowed to cast a vote at the booth. We will go the extra mile and even ensure that, if need be, a polling officer is sent to deliver the postal ballot to the Covid-positive voter and even bring it back. This is for all future elections, including by-elections.
What about campaigning for Bihar elections?
For the process of casting vote, we will follow all guidelines of the health ministry and NDMA. Chief secretaries of each state are being asked to appoint a senior officer to ensure that. Election campaigning will also have to follow the health and NDMA guidelines. Parties will have to rely on virtual rallies and campaigning through social media. But the situation could change closer to the date of poll in Bihar.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines