Interview: Chief Election Commissioner

‘100 per cent peaceful’

Print edition : March 06, 2015

H.S. Brahma: "It is very difficult to control the expenditures of political parties." Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Election officials open an electronic voting machine at a counting centre in New Delhi on February 10. Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Interview with Chief Election Commissioner H.S. Brahma.

THE run-up to the Delhi Assembly elections was characterised by high-voltage campaigning at every level. Given the nature of the contest, the personalities concerned and the stakes involved, institutions such as the Election Commission of India (E.C.) could not afford to leave anything to chance. Chief Election Commissioner H.S. Brahma, who as Election Commissioner had dealt with the Lok Sabha elections last year, spoke to Frontline about the need for broader participation by all, including political parties, in the electoral process to make the exercise completely transparent and credible. He also gave his assessment of some of the issues that came up before the E.C. and other matters that needed redress. Excerpts:

What made the Delhi Assembly elections different apart from the fact that it was a high-pitched contest and involved big money? What were the challenges that came up before the E.C. ?

Of the issues before the E.C., the first had to do with improving the purity of the electoral rolls. There were many complaints by all the parties concerned about duplicity of electoral rolls and we saw to it that those complaints were addressed. There also needs to be more transparency by political parties and candidates as far as the model code of conduct [MCC] is concerned. There are many grey areas despite the MCC being applicable to political parties, candidates, and the print and electronic media. This needs to be streamlined further so that all stakeholders are aware of various provisions under the Representation of the People Act and rules. Additional dos and don’ts have to be framed in view of the changing and fast-evolving technologies, especially in the areas of Internet, digital and mobile technologies. This is among the major challenges faced by the E.C. For instance, there is no law at present in the country to deal with Internet campaigning (through Facebook, Twitter), mobile phone campaigning and radio jingles. These issues came up in the recently concluded elections as well. The MCC is a constantly evolving mechanism.

It is learnt that a proposal for further electoral reforms, drafted by the E.C., has been sent and is pending with the Central government. After all, the onus lies on the political parties to take a clear stand on issues such as caps on campaign expenditure or even what is construed as campaigning, like, maybe, government-sponsored advertisements and publicity of government schemes, etc. through the print and electronic media. There is no law proscribing the use of print media, unlike the electronic media, for campaigning after the expiry of the campaign deadline.

Yes, there are a clutch of proposals on electoral reforms that have been sent to the government. These are not new. These E.C. recommendations span a period of 20-25 years and they are now with the Law Commission of India. I am hopeful they will be finalised soon. There are around two dozen items listed as part of our proposals. As I said, there are many grey areas. For instance, there is a bar on campaigning in [the last] 48 hours before polling, but no bar on sending SMSs. There were complaints about talk shows and exit polls being conducted after the deadline for voting expired. There are cases where people queue up for voting before the deadline and once they are in the queue we allow them to vote [even if the deadline is over]. But then if exit polls and talk shows begin, this can influence the minds of the voters. Then there are talk shows on elections which may be held in a different part of the country but they also can influence the outcome. We also need to train our staff in handling matters.

Expenditure is another grey area. We can control expenditure by individual candidates but it is very difficult to control the expenditure of political parties. There has to be proper guidelines for accounting and political funding. And expenditure can never be controlled unless political parties are made accountable. The control on candidates has no meaning. The larger issue has to be dealt with by Parliament and it is for all political parties to take a call. We have given our recommendations. And it is true that there have not been too many instances of convictions of individuals violating expenditure norms. There have been a few cases where candidates were disqualified for suppressing and submitting false expenditure statements. There was a high-profile “paid news” case as well, which was quashed by the Delhi High Court. People also advise us to monitor election expenses months before the elections are announced. But how is that possible? Candidates are announced only after the elections are formally announced.

There were some complaints about tampering with the electronic voting machines by some political parties. How foolproof is the system?

Interestingly, disputes over the functionality of the EVMs is almost coming to an end. It has been almost resolved. Earlier, we used to get allegations and counter-allegations too. This time too we received complaints but there was nothing substantial in them. What needs to be re-emphasised is that the E.C. is trying hard to ensure quality and absolutely fair and free elections through various institutional checks. On the other hand, political parties, their candidates and their agents must exercise a tremendous amount of vigil and participation while the EVMs are being prepared or readied for polling. The more the vigil on the election process, especially on the EVMs, the less will be the complaints and the failure rate of the machines. The political parties are part of the screening process. They are invited for first-level and second-level checks five to six months before the date of polling. This gives them an opportunity to ensure that the machines are in order. They should not leave it to the E.C. and its staff entirely. It is not their burden alone. The candidates and the political parties must exhibit the same kind of vigil as they do in the case of the electoral rolls. The elections in Bihar are due. The checking of the EVMs will start five or six months before that and the State Election Commission will inform everyone to participate in the process. It is not possible to check the EVMs once the process of polling starts.

In the Delhi elections, we received complaints only in two out of 13,000 polling centres. At one place, it was a mechanical failure; the other reported a human error. I can say with confidence that 99 per cent of the EVMs are foolproof but mechanical failures can happen. Tampering is not possible unless candidates from the top to the bottom collude or where there is no agent of the opposing party or an election observer. In normal circumstances, it is impossible.

There were other allegations and counter-allegations as well.

There were three kinds of complaints. First, regarding the electoral rolls, all the three major parties contesting the elections came forward with complaints of duplicate, triplicate and multiple ID cards having been issued. Some 14 lakh spurious names were found. It took a month to “purify” them. Then the other complaint was the usual one, about muscle, money and liquor. We told the complainants to give us evidence, audio, video, etc. In the case of liquor, the catch was high—we “captured” twice the quantity of liquor as compared to the 2013-14 elections. The thing is, Delhi adjoins the States of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. There is bound to be some influence. The money seized was also 60 per cent more than what it was last time.

For 70 Assembly seats, there was heavy deployment. There were 60 teams comprising security staff, excise staff, paramilitary, police and election personnel. It was three times the deployment during the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2013.

There are always some issues and there are frivolous complaints as well. But by and large, I can say that the Delhi Assembly elections were 100 per cent peaceful.

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