THE NINE-PHASED ELECTIONS for the 16th Lok Sabha were unprecedentedly high-pitched and high-octane in character. High turnout of voters was one of the new features this time as was the use of social media as a campaigning tool, which threw up fresh challenges. Election expenditure going beyond the ceiling limits set for candidates and the absence of a level playing field given the varying resource-mobilisation capacities of parties have been major concerns. H.S. Brahma, Election Commissioner, spoke to Frontline on some of the general and specific concerns the Election Commission of India (E.C.) faced this time.
Given the high-voltage and surcharged nature of the election campaign, do you think the Election Commission faced one of its most challenging elections in recent times?
I won’t say this is a more challenging election. The Election Commission has been conducting elections for the past 65 years. This is the 16th Lok Sabha election. The challenges are more or less the same. The number of voters has gone up. If you compare previous elections in recent times, awareness of voting rights and duties has increased. We are a population of one billion people. Elections are a means by which people choose their nominees who in turn will provide them the necessary governance.
Because of improvements in literacy and communication, elections are being fought very keenly. Every citizen of this country has access to television, radio or films—at least, there is some understanding of the language. Nearly 80 per cent of the country seems to be covered by mobile technology. It is high voltage because of two reasons. One is due to the profile of the main actors involved. The high-voltage campaign and publicity is because of the involvement of the participants. On all sides we have strong campaigners and leaders trying to capture power. Any party desirous of running the system has to capture power. The situation might change every five years or it might not. What happens in Delhi [the election outcome] will be seen all over the world. The high-voltage action and digital communication has made the system more volatile and the communication more intense. To that extent, these elections have been a challenge.
It looked as if the model code of conduct came under a lot of strain. The E.C. was forced to take action in some cases and ban the rallies and campaigns of some leaders. In some cases, it even directed the State authorities to file first information reports. Despite the strictures, violations took place. A certain kind of a communal rhetoric was also used.
Yes, I agree, the model code of conduct has come under severe strain. Despite warnings, notices, the E.C. has not been able to arrest the kind of tendencies that ridicule and ignore its notices, censures and warnings. But the number of offenders is very low. The real players are less than five to six parties. There are 6,000-7,000 candidates, and violations involve less than a dozen of them. We took action in Uttar Pradesh, put a ban on speeches, on public appearances. We have sufficient in-built mechanisms to restrain such conduct. The ambit of the model code of conduct can be increased or decreased. But it has to be done in consultation with political parties.
The E.C. cannot do it single-handedly. The basic foundation of the model code of conduct was laid by political parties. They are responsible for suggesting whether it needs to be upgraded. Maybe there is a need. We have never seen the social media so virulent. Earlier, we were never concerned about what appeared on Twitter or Facebook. A lot of personalised campaigning is taking place on these sites. We have no control over the nature of campaigning on Facebook, Twitter or the Internet. In the years to come, we will confront and face even anti-national matter and material on the Internet. The model code of conduct may undergo changes.
Do you think that the E.C. is not being taken seriously enough? There have been instances of the E.C. being dared to take action. Do you think the E.C. should be more proactive?
It depends on how you look at it. I don’t think political parties are looking at the E.C. differently. I don’t think it has lost its sheen or that there have been attempts to undermine or bypass it. An individual can disregard, ignore or disrespect the ECI, but political parties as a whole do not conduct themselves in this manner. Yes, the ECI should be more proactive. After all, we conduct elections once in five years.
There was reason to believe that the communal killings in Assam were a direct fallout of inflammatory speeches made by certain individuals targeting the minorities.
It was purely a matter of law and order. Unfortunately, Assam had had a long-standing problem, from the 1950s. It has suffered from the longest insurgency in the world. I don’t think it is a case of communal discord. I don’t deny that from the 1980s onwards, we’ve had incidents. I don’t have an idea if political parties are involved. One can have a fight over a football match also. Let there be an inquiry. If you look the Representation of the People [R.P.] Act, it says very clearly that no political party can use caste, community or religion while canvassing for votes.
The latest judgment of the Allahabad High Court has even banned caste rallies and processions. We welcome this judgment wholeheartedly. It acts as a force multiplier for us. No one should appeal for votes on the basis of caste, community or religion, but violations do take place. We are a young democracy. We gave women the right to vote even before the advanced Western democracies did. So let us not worry about the small aberrations.
There has been a lot of expenditure on campaigns, including on advertisements in the media and in public spaces, by certain parties. While this enthusiasm of political parties and the electorate is encouraging, do you not think that somewhere the level playing field gets distorted as many parties are unable to make such expenditure, spend money on campaigns and get coverage through expensive advertisements?
It is a fact that money and muscle power creates a non-level playing field. The more a party has of these two factors, the better are its chances of winning. This is what political parties believe. This definitely creates a bias in the minds of the voter. A candidate who can spend Rs.5 crore in an election can influence voters by repeatedly wooing them. The human mind, unfortunately, is impressionable. Human beings are lured by freebies. The more money, the more publicity and the better the quality of the campaign. A level playing field is a challenge.
One requires money for campaigning, posters, transportation. How does one cover six to seven parliamentary constituencies covering sometimes two to three districts? Even to cover a parliamentary constituency like Gurgaon with a population of 16 lakhs, one requires money, food, transport. The report of the Administrative Reforms Commission set up by the Government of India has gone into the details of how money and power influence results. Indians are very honest and loyal people. If they take money or a gift from someone, they will never disown them. It makes sense. Why should someone give a freebie if there is no assurance that the person will vote for him? Any political party that spends that kind of money knows that of 100 per cent, 80 per cent will vote for it.
We can stop the play of money if we can get political parties to reveal their source of income. Barring some miscellaneous expenditure that can be up to a few thousands of rupees, the rest should be paid through the bank. If the inflow is transparent, we can regulate the expenditure. The country needs more transparency, especially in politics. Political parties come and complain to us about the kind of money that is being spent. They should come out with a solution on their own. This has to be done by a law. We can definitely call a meeting.
We are compiling a list of the aberrations and the lacunae in our system, which includes addressing problems faced by our own team officers as well. We have complaints of booth capturing, of 100 per cent polling, in some places, over 100 per cent polling, parties releasing manifestos on the day of voting—there are many violations. Even the R.P. Act may need to be looked at in order to add some more features.
There has been unhappiness over the elections being held over nine phases, probably stemming from fears that exit polls and opinion polls might influence the pattern of voting.
We had to have the elections in multiple phases owing to a lack of adequate resources. Local leaders and politicians do not have faith in the State law enforcement machinery. So we have to depend on Central paramilitary forces, who are in any case overstretched. They are not trained for deployment in election duty. Other than in areas affected by left-wing extremism, we should try to manage with the civil police. The dependence on Central forces has to come down. We in the ECI and the Home Ministry need to see how well this can be done. The local police have the advantage of knowing the local language, customs—only thing is they have to be more neutral.
We have received nearly 500 petitions of complaints pertaining to paid news of which 430 are confirmed. We have issued notices. We have set up Media Certification & Monitoring Committees in all States and districts. If found guilty, the candidate can be debarred from contesting elections for five years.
There have been reports from West Bengal of large-scale rigging and booth capturing. All political parties barring the ruling party have complained to the ECI and some have demanded that the special observer be changed as well.
If the top behaves well, the effect is seen at the bottom too. The reform process should be from the top; the boys will behave well if the boss behaves well. We have sent additional forces to West Bengal. There has been booth capturing in several States. About the special observer, I have not seen any particular complaint against him. I read about it in the newspapers. Let me see.