Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi talks to Kavita Chowdhury on the need to speed up electoral reforms and his new-found interest in Twitter as a medium to interact with the public at large
For the first time in history, a Rajya Sabha election was countermanded because of allegations that money changed hands. How does the Election Commission (EC) propose to check the blatant use of money power in polls?
This has been a long-drawn problem. While the focus has been on the Lok Sabha and the state Assembly polls, other elections have not got enough attention. To tackle this entire money issue, we have created a new division of election expenditure monitoring, with an income tax commissioner as the director general. Also, we have now come up with detailed guidelines — candidates need to open a new bank account for election purposes; we have deployed flying squads for video-graphing all proceedings and maintaining ‘shadow registers’ (shadowing the candidate through the polls). And, of course, increased alert at airports and railway stations to check transportation of illegal money.
How was the decision for countermanding the election in Jharkhand taken? Was it to send out a strong message?
For the election in Jharkhand, we had received complaints from leaders of political parties, including Sharad Yadav. In a poll, parties need to reach out to only the members of Legislative Assembly — in this case, 80 of them. So, the election expense cannot require that much money, as say the Lok Sabha one, where the upper limit for expenditure is Rs 40 lakh.
In this case, we were able to act because we had actionable evidence. The High Court judgment subsequently supporting us has strengthened our hands in our fight against corruption.
That (fight against corruption) is something you have been tweeting about. As a new entrant to the Twitter space, do you enjoy your interactions with the public?
I find Twitter a good medium — it helps in first-hand interactions with people and, at the same time, for them to access the EC. I think it has helped to bridge the gap and dispel wrong notions about the EC. In fact, in one case, the information provided by a Twitter user helped me to take action in Uttar Pradesh during the elections. While there are hostile comments as well, it is important to dispel ignorance and cynicism about elections and the EC. Time constraints prevent me from being on Twitter as much as I would like to.
You have been vocal on the issue of electoral reforms. Is state funding of elections, too, on the agenda?
There are more than 20 election reforms which we have proposed, such as barring of candidates with criminal records and auditing expense accounts of candidates and making these public. However, we in the EC don’t support state funding, as it would not check black money in elections. In fact, it would enhance it.
What about the right to reject?
This could act as a deterrent for money power and criminals, but it will lead to too many elections. As it is, there is an election fatigue. We have three elections in five years.
As for ‘paid news’, have your efforts at curbing it proved successful?
Paid news should be made a criminal offence. It has been controlled to some extent, but it is coming up in different forms. It needs stringent monitoring of political parties and the media to weed out suspected cases. In a just concluded meeting of the Election Commissioners of poll-going states, we have asked them to closely monitor paid news.
The Uttar Pradesh elections were completely free of violence. What has changed since the 1980s and 1990s when elections were marked by bloodshed?
The EC has been working very systematically in UP over the years. The deployment of the Central armed forces has helped. Moreover, holding the elections in phases enabled us to move and have adequate forces in every phase. Also, we have started distributing voter slips ourselves, completely revolutionising the voter participation. We first tried it in Bihar in 2010 and, following its success there, we have made it a policy nationwide now. This time, we allowed voters to use this voter slip as an alternative ID card. About 24 per cent voters used it in UP and as many as 75 per cent in Goa.
The EC has been doing ‘vulnerability mapping’ of villages in UP since 2007. It helps us to pinpoint violent spots and identify trouble makers. We also study the poll history of every booth. When we see extraordinary high or low voter turnout in any village, we flag it. On the basis of ten parameters, we take preventive action.
This time we made 70,000 preventive arrests before the polls and executed all non-bailable warrants that had been pending for long. All of these have helped us to keep away criminal elements during the polls and prevent any violence. We ensured a level-playing field, even if that meant covering statues. We came in for severe criticism for it, but even the Allahabad High Court upheld our decision.
You retire on June 10 this year. What do you think has been your legacy to the EC?
The election expenditure monitoring division has been around for two years now; the India International Institute of Democratic and Election Management which has been functioning from the EC building as of now; celebration of January 25 as National Voters Day — this year we distributed 38 million voter ID cards throughout the country on this day as against 17 million last year.
I have also set up a system for voter education for election participation. This puts an end to the demand for having compulsory voting. The results are out there — in all the five states that went to polls, women voters outnumbered men and all the 11 elections that we have conducted in the past two years, the voter turnout has surpassed that of all previous elections in the country. Also, the ‘yuvak’ programme has brought about youth mobilisation. I have previously been the secretary in the ministry of youth affairs and I know the representation of youth in the 18-20 age group as voters was only 20 per cent. It has now jumped to 45 per cent through targeted approaches in colleges, forums, etc.
There are some important elections coming up — Gujarat in the year-end and the general elections in 2014. Any new plan from the EC on the anvil?
Elections are planned and held according to the ground reality in any particular state. In Tamil Nadu, for example, where black money is a major problem, we conducted the elections in one day itself. But, in West Bengal, the state of approximately the same size as Tamil Nadu, we stretched it across seven phases. This was essential to deploy adequate Central forces and prevent violence. Therefore, state-to-state variations are present.