With less than a month to go for polling in Punjab, chief electoral officer VK Singh (CEO), a 1990-batch IAS officer, is under scrutiny from various quarters, be it the ruling and opposition parties, the candidates or the electorate. In an interview to HT special correspondent Gurpreet Singh Nibber, the CEO dismissed criticism over his ‘soft’ approach on major poll-related issues, while promising free, fair and peaceful polls in the state. Excerpts:
HT: Is it a tough job to be Punjab’s chief electoral officer?
VK: It’s a very challenging role, which is giving me diverse experience. There are a large number of stakeholders — 1 lakh civil staff, the same number of police personnel, 22 deputy commissioners, 27 senior superintendents of police (SSPs), 13 returning officers and various candidates – which have to be kept in the loop. I have to come up to the expectations of 1.9 crore voters, of which 80% are expected to cast the ballot. Then there are huge logistics involving 22,000 polling booths and 30,000 electronic voting machines.
What are the challenges before you for the ensuing Lok Sabha elections?
Controlling the distribution of money and liquor to woo voters and paid news are big challenges for us. Also, I want officials to work independently, without any political influence. We are hoping for peaceful, fair and free polls.
You are under fire from the opposition party (Congress) for allegedly favouring the ruling SAD-BJP coalition and not taking any decision which could act as a deterrent for violators of the model code of conduct.
I can’t comment on anybody’s claim. In case anyone makes a complaint, he has to back it with proof. I am playing the neutral role of a referee but I just can’t act against the government (of SAD-BJP alliance).
Are you feeling the pressure political leaders exert on election officials?
I have worked with a number of politicians. All of them are not demons. In the elections, all stakeholders try to pull us in their respective directions and I believe that one’s moral compass should point in the right direction.
How do you differentiate between the roles played by the state electoral office and Election Commission of India?
The Election Commission (EC) is an autonomous body, but the state electoral office is not. All state and central governments employees and officials are under the control of the EC, whereas we are dependent on the state government for everything.
It is said that your office plays the role of a post office. Why do you depend on the EC for all decisions?
The office of the state CEO functions under the EC. Our role is to coordinate and implement its decisions and directions. The EC has various channels for getting information. The CEO has an important role to play. We have been making recommendations for punitive action against erring officials.
Your office is being bypassed by the Punjab government and the EC on most key issues. The latest example is of Punjab DGP Sumedh Singh Saini proceeding on leave without the CEO’s knowledge.
In administrative matters, the state government directly approaches the EC and vice-versa; poll-related issues are dealt by us. We get parallel communication on many issues. In about 95% of the issues, the CEO is involved.