Interview: Rajesh Lokhani

‘A dependable strategy’

Print edition : May 27, 2016

Rajesh Lakhoni, Chief Electoral Officer. Photo: M. VEDHAN

Interview with Rajesh Lakhoni, Chief Electoral Officer of Tamil Nadu.

THE Chief Electoral Officer of Tamil Nadu, Rajesh Lakhoni, was busy when Frontline met him in his office at Fort St. George in Chennai. Despite the stream of visitors and the constant ringing of his phones, the suave officer, who is in charge of conducting the massive exercise of the 2016 Assembly elections in which over five crore people will vote, fielded even some of the embarrassing questions with ease. He accepted that money had emerged as a menace in the elections and explained in detail how the Election Commission was dealing with it. Excerpts:

The Election Commission, it seems, is struggling hard to arrest the money flow in the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu. Do you think that the menace can be eradicated?

Money is a serious issue not only in Tamil Nadu. We have evolved a dependable strategy to curb its flow this time. Initially, the ECI had to depend totally on State resources even at micro perspective levels. We were not able to stem its flow totally. We were helpless. But after the seizure of hawala money in the Bihar elections, the ECI decided to involve the Enforcement Directorate of the Income Tax Department for the purpose in all States that are going to the polls this time. It has been effective so far.

Are you confident?

Yes. I am. For this poll, we have formed teams comprising both State and Central government employees so that there is no room for any sort of manoeuvrability and unethical practices. Besides, the Income Tax is activating its own intelligence network across the State, is carrying out searches frequently even at the district level with IRS [Indian Revenue Service] officers in charge of operations. The focus is to unearth money waiting to be distributed to voters.

It is a massive endeavour involving a massive workforce. The disbursement of the money to smaller nodal points by the parties, it is claimed, is almost accomplished. Everyone speaks about cash for vote.

We have set in motion a strong mechanism with which even rural pockets are brought under our scanner. We have formed village youth vigilance committees in 16,000 villages in Tamil Nadu. If a consignment of unsolicited money is sighted anywhere, the same will be intimated to us, which in turn will be conveyed to the flying squads and multi-disciplinary committees through short messaging services. The exercise is transparent since every member in the squad would receive the SMS about the location to be raided, thus eliminating even a strand of suspicion in the whole operation.

Political parties invariably accuse the Chief Electoral Officer of showing a partisan attitude. You are also facing such problems.

Let it be. They have to understand that we in the ECI have put in place a system that will eliminate all such misgivings. I am just a facilitator sitting in a room and monitoring the operation. The IT Department and other teams of enforcement are in the field. The details of IT raids, seizures, etc., if any, and other related materials will be directly intimated to the ECI with only a copy marked to the Chief Electoral Officer. If the seizures are of small denominations, the officials of the squads can verify suo motu and after receiving supporting documents can release the same within 24 hours. This move has been initiated to protect genuine people from harassment. Where is the room for accusing me of bias here?

How will you check last-minute disbursal?

The money distribution will be made extremely difficult this time. We will be going after those who are stashing money for election purposes. In the two days prior to the polling date we will launch a series of multi-disciplinary actions to curb distribution. It is not going to be easy for those who harbour hopes of buying votes.

You are reaching out to the people in a big way this time. The objective of 100 per cent voting looks encouraging and evolving. But will it be possible to achieve this magic figure?

Yes. It can be. Besides 100 per cent voting, we also will ensure ethical voting. Innovative awareness campaigns such as ‘My vote is not for sale’ are already catching on. Our video coverage on this subject has become an instant hit among voters, especially among those who are in the age group of 18 to 29, who form a staggering 23 per cent of the electorate in Tamil Nadu. “You cannot buy me” is one of the few other catchy slogans that have caught attention. The whole process has been automated. A voter can use his mobile phone to know about the location of the booth, serial number of his vote, the status of the queue at the polling booth, and so on. We have created an application for IPhone, Android and Windows.

Can you ensure free and fair polls?

This time no humans, only humanoids operate the entire exercise. The two IT majors, Income Tax and Information Technology, will usher in a new era in elections in this part of the country. The noose has been tightened to ensure a fair poll as we give paramount importance to the neutrality of elections. We are extremely confident of ensuring an election free of all evil influences.

Do you have plans to enforce Section 144 of the Cr. PC during the elections?

No. [The ECI enforced Section 144 during the last parliamentary elections, which created a controversy.] Sensitive booths have been identified for which additional security will be provided.