Interview: N. Gopalaswami

‘It is becoming increasingly difficult to conduct free and fair polls’

Print edition : August 19, 2016

N. Gopalaswami, former CEC. Photo: By Special Arrangement

FORMER Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) N. Gopalaswami, who was at the helm of the E.C. when it implemented many innovations such as the introduction of photo electoral rolls and steps to improve the quality of the electoral rolls, is of the opinion that there is no political will to curb the bribing of voters. Gopalaswami, who served in the E.C. for over five years between February 2004 and April 2009, and was CEC for about three years, says that there is no point in giving the E.C. more powers to stop the distribution of cash to voters. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

Is it possible to curb the distribution of money to voters by political parties on a large scale?

It is next to impossible to curb the distribution of money. Is it possible for the E.C. to have one official for every 50 voters? There are normally about 2-2.5 lakh voters in a constituency. How is it practical for the E.C. to have such a large number of officials to monitor? It is up to the people and the political parties.

But the E.C. did curb booth capturing and other such malpractices.

Let me give you a scenario. If a political party is distributing Rs.500 to a voter and the E.C. can do better than that, then the menace can be curbed. Can the E.C. meet money with money? No. There is a saying in Hindi: Miyan biwi raazi toh kya karega qazi (If the wife and the husband agree with each other, what can the judge do?). That is the situation of the E.C.

The question of booth capturing is very different and the fact that we tackled it in an organised manner that took many by surprise. Yes, those who were capturing booths at the behest of some powerful politicians did it for the money. But they were not prepared to die trying to make money. When we systematically made sure that Central forces were present in all polling stations across a State where polling was being held, and when we made it clear that they would shoot if required, it was a game changer. We were of the firm view that if there were no Central forces available, there would be no polls.

In the 2005 Bihar elections, for instance, [Assembly elections were held twice in Bihar that year], the E.C. made sure that this was put into practice. The E.C. announced a four-phase poll, but ended up doing it over seven phases [actually, seven days]. This was because ground reviews were constantly factored in and decisions made on the conduct or postponement of polls. This was one of the most peaceful, free and fair elections in India. In fact, one journalist who had covered Bihar extensively remarked later to me that the E.C. had migrated over the years from macro-management at the national level to booth-level management at the field level and this change of focus had led to the success of the campaign for free and fair elections.

This is how the E.C. put an end to the booth capturing menace. But distribution of money is very different.

A few politicians seem to want to change the status quo and they have fought for more powers for the E.C. to curb the menace of money distribution for votes. Does the E.C. need more powers?

I do not think the E.C. can control the menace of money distribution merely because it has additional powers. I am sure there are well meaning and idealistic politicians. But which politician will want to cut his own feet by enacting a law that will ultimately harm him?

The talk of electoral reforms has been going on for a long time. The first letter that every Chief Election Commissioner writes to the government after assuming office is on the question of electoral reforms. There have been recommendations by the Law Commission, the Review Committee on the Constitution and many other bodies. But there has not been any action on any of the substantive issues.

But when there is an issue that affects politicians, they come together. Look what happened when the Supreme Court in 2013 held that charge sheeted Members of Parliament and Members of Legislative Assemblies (MLAs), on conviction for offences, would be immediately disqualified from holding membership of the House without being given three months’ time for appeal. [The Bench found it unconstitutional that convicted persons could be disqualified from contesting elections but could continue to be Members of Parliament and State Legislatures once elected though an earlier ruling of the Supreme Court allowed them the time to appeal.]

The government brought in an ordinance against this. Rahul Gandhi tore up this ordinance some days later, and it was finally dropped.

There are simple things that can be done. If the Supreme Court, for instance, says that an election petition or all election-related cases should be completed in three years, it will be of great help.

What in your view is the biggest challenge facing the E.C.?

As soon as the election process is completed in a State, and the E.C. vacates the place, you see that all the officials who were transferred out of their sensitive postings [by the E.C.] are back in the very same posts. These officials are secure in the knowledge that, at worst, they will be removed from their posts only for the duration of the election process. So, what incentive does a bureaucrat have to remain neutral?

The politicisation of the bureaucracy is one of the biggest problems. It will become more and more difficult for the E.C. to conduct free and fair elections in the future. How many officials can the E.C. replace or remove from their posts during the conduct of an election? Can it replace police inspectors and head constables? If it does so, how many such people can be replaced?

R.K. Radhakrishnan

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