EC is a referee without powers to penalise

Interview/O.P. Rawat, chief election commissioner

21-Rawat O.P. Rawat | Sanjay Ahlawat

How are the preparations for the upcoming elections?

Preparations for the Lok Sabha elections began in February. Activities like training of personnel and first-level check of EVMs and VVPATs started in May. Everything is on schedule.

Preparations for the state elections began in July. The commission has visited Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Mizoram, and we are satisfied that these states are ready for polls.

Telangana was added suddenly. [But] this year being Lok Sabha-election preparation year, it did not shock us. Otherwise, we would have been in trouble.

What are the challenges before the commission?

There are many. Foremost is abuse of money, which is spiralling. Our legal provisions are not sufficient to counter it. There is no ceiling on the expenditure by parties. So, whenever something is caught, it is labelled party expenditure, and we cannot do anything.

Also, laws regarding bribery are such that it becomes difficult for us to bring wrongdoers to book.

So, the current legal framework is not enough?

Paid news needs to be made an offence for it to be controlled. Ceiling on party expenditure will bring in a level playing field. There is a ceiling on candidate's expenditure, but none on the party's. As smaller parties cannot spend so much, imbalances come up. We are pursuing the law ministry for all these reforms.

Political will seems to be lacking on electoral reforms.

I will not say that. To be fair to politicians, they have to play the game. We are the referee. They have to take ground realities into account while making legal amendments. When it is not problematic, they have made amendments. Things move, but it takes time.

The government is keen on simultaneous elections. Is it possible?

It did happen during the first four general elections. [But] after 1967, many assemblies went out of sync, and now elections are happening many times a year. To bring them in sync again, amendments will be required to the Constitution and to the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which the commission has suggested to the government.

When the legal framework is changed, issues of logistics will come up. Right now, we are working with about 20 lakh machines. To have simultaneous elections, we will need more than 30 lakh machines. We will require more Central paramilitary forces. We will require more manpower, more vehicles and a bigger budget.

However, first, a kickstart has to be given to the proposals for legal amendments. As the legal amendments are not in place, it is a non-starter as of now.

How big a concern is social media?

It is a major concern after the Cambridge Analytica revelations on data harvesting, profiling and targeted communication. Investigations in other democracies are throwing up evidence of misdemeanours involving foreign powers.

The commission held an interaction with local and regional heads of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. They gave a commitment that during campaign, no material which affects the level playing field will be allowed. Fact checkers will weed out fake news. Advertisements will be checked, [with regards to] who sponsored them and how much money was paid. And no election material will be allowed in the last 48 hours before conclusion of the election.

We tested this in Karnataka, where there was no adverse impact of social media. We will test it again in the upcoming state elections.

Several political parties have raised doubts about EVMs.

When parties win through the same EVMs, they do not raise a finger. The EVM is standalone. It is totally disconnected from the outside world, without any capability of talking to any other machine, either through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi or any other means. So, it cannot be manipulated.

But, parties want to go back to ballot paper.

I do not think so. Most of them have asked us to increase the number of polling stations for which VVPAT slips are counted. We have asked the Indian Statistical Institute to work out a sample size that can give minimum error. Also, the EVM has made booth capturing a thing of the past. It would take about 20 minutes to stuff a thousand votes into the ballot box. The EVM takes 15 to 20 seconds for one vote to be cast, so it will take an entire day for a booth capturer to cast a thousand votes.

In recent months, the commission's neutrality has been questioned.

In sports, if a player raises his or her voice against the umpire, he or she is penalised. But, here is a situation where the referee has to bear all this because there is no penalty prescribed.

However, it is healthy in a democracy that stakeholders vent their feelings. They keep us on our toes and help us to deliver impartially.

The Congress called the commission a captive puppet of the Modi government.

This may be a pre-emptive strike to alert the party in power. The voter in our country has come of age. Even an illiterate and poor voter has an objective perception about our institutions and the antecedents of parties. So, we never felt the need for any certificate from anyone because it is the common voter's perception that matters.

Your critics say you are close to BJP leaders.

Recent decisions of the commission, like the order regarding premature dissolution of state assemblies, goes against the ruling dispensation, because it binds both the Centre and the state government in Telangana. Also, there was the decision in the matter relating to the Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat.

The commission's decisions are objective and non-partisan. Since its inception, it has only added to its credibility. Successive election commissioners have strived hard to build that reputation.

Is the commission under any kind of pressure?

Stress is rooted in your conduct. If your conduct is impartial, you do not feel stressed or affected by hollow allegations.

The commission received flak for delinking the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections.

I was part of that decision. The chief secretary of Gujarat wrote to us, [saying] that the state needed a few more days for flood-relief work. The commission took a view that, even if it creates some embarrassment for us, we should help the sufferers. We got flak, as we had anticipated. At times, even if your image may be dented, human suffering must be avoided.

Do you still defend the decision not to give the AAP MLAs a hearing in the office-of-profit case?

Being in the commission, it is incumbent upon us to defend our decisions. Once the court has set it aside, we accept that with due respect. And we have implemented the decision of the High Court by giving the MLAs a hearing.

What if a government falls midway?

The commission has suggested that a provision be made in the Constitution that a no-confidence motion be accompanied by a confidence motion so that the House need not be dissolved.

On premature dissolution of the assembly, like it happened in Telangana, we have suggested that if more than half the term remains, we can hold election for that period. If there is little time left, instead of holding election, we can have a representative government or some other mechanism. A political consensus will have to be evolved for these amendments.

What steps are being taken to check election expenditure?

We have launched a mobile app called cVIGIL to empower the voter. A complaint made on the app will go directly into the inbox of the returning officer and the complainant will get a response on action taken within 100 minutes. It will help guard against money and liquor distribution.

We tested it in Bengaluru in the Assembly polls. Former Prime Minister Deve Gowda would ring me up to say that nobody is acting on his complaints. I asked him to download the app. After that, I did not get a call from him.

We are deploying more expenditure observers. There will be greater auditing of candidates' accounts and more intensive follow-up on public meetings.

The commission has established this twice. After the 2009 [Lok Sabha] elections, there was hue and cry against EVMs. We put up a challenge, but nobody could prove otherwise. After the Assembly elections in 2017, again questions were raised. We invited all parties to try and hack the EVM. Just two parties came and they said they had come to learn more about the EVM.

Any plans of linking voter ID with Aadhaar?

We had started linking voter ID with Aadhaar in 2015. We linked 300 million voters when the privacy issue cropped up. And, then we stopped. Now, as the Aadhaar verdict is out, we will examine if the process can restart. But, now the number of voters has gone up to 879 million. The remaining 579 million will have to be linked.

How does the commission look at electoral bonds?

When electoral bonds were brought in by the Finance Bill of 2017, the commission flagged certain issues. We said it will give rise to shell companies, and companies that are not even making a profit might be used for political funding. We were told it was just an enabling provision and no scheme had been formulated yet, hence it was premature to say anything. So, we waited.

The scheme was notified on January 2, 2018. Five tranches of electoral bonds have been issued. The commission has received the contribution reports of political parties. We will go back to the government on electoral bonds, if any of our concerns remain.

The Congress has questioned the purity of electoral rolls in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

When electoral rolls were in paper form, nobody could dare to go through those papers and find what was wrong. We digitised these rolls, got a de-duplication software and started the process of weeding out duplicates. The process started in 2015, and slowly but steadily, all these duplicates are being removed throughout the country.

Whenever elections approach, parties get worried that these duplicates might be used for impersonation, which is not possible. Even if a polling station has five or ten duplicates, they cannot be used by any impersonator to vote, because of identification through photograph.

The Supreme Court says the Parliament should pass a law barring tainted people from politics.

The commission had filed an affidavit in this PIL before the Supreme Court, saying it is for decriminalising politics. Now, since the verdict has come, the commission has approved a new format of the affidavit in which candidates will have to state their criminal antecedents. The same will have to be advertised by the candidates and their political parties. The Supreme Court order will be duly implemented in the coming elections.