Chief election commissioner SY Quraishi has a tough job handling the world’s biggest poll machinery, but he believes the ECI is also the world’s most powerful election commission. SY Quraishi speaks to Hindustan Times during an exclusive interaction at its "Leaderspeak@ht" programme.
Punjab is notorious for use of money and liquor during elections. How would you tackle this?
We are taking steps that are working too. There was a time in Punjab when a lot of muscle power was used. All that is almost history, we have a lot of checks in place. There is still money and liquor, but we have enough experience to deal with that. After holding consultations with all parties, we will form our opinion.
What about bureaucrats and police officers angling for the ruling party ticket?
The rule is simple: We do not tolerate anyone except a neutral civil servant. Whether he is intending to contest an election is immaterial for us. Even being sympathetic is not allowed. Public perception is important.The Punjab government has put state-cadre police officers at the helm of 24 of the 26 districts, sidelining IPS officers. The opposition alleges pliable officers have been put.We will be listening to all political parties on such issues in Punjab, and will take action wherever needed.
Is there a possibility of Punjab elections being advanced?
It's too early to talk about that. The Constitution gives us the power to hold elections up to six months before or after the due date. Normally, we avoid holding elections in a manner in which the result of one state may have an impact on the other. Punjab has a large number of proclaimed offenders. We start monitoring this a year in advance. We want all absconders arrested. We also do vulnerability mapping in which records of all criminal elements are complied.
But the Punjab Police is making little effort to nab them.
They dare not. They will have to catch hold of all of them before the elections. The ruling SAD is a "secular party" with the ECI, as mandated under the Representation of the People Act, but calls itself as a Sikh party for the SGPC elections. This is a matter to be looked into, but at the moment I do not have anything to say on that. The legal wing of the election commission would be seized of the matter.
What amendments are in the offing to decriminalise the elections and check black money? Is there any timeframe?
Reform proposals have been pending with the government since two decades. I followed it up after taking over as CEC with the then union law minister, Veerappa Moily, and things got moving. There are three major proposals, the most important being the one to debar criminals against whom a court of law has framed charges. Then, there is the need for transparency in political funding through insistence on payments by way of cheque, audit of accounts and putting audited account statements on website. As for the timeframe, the bill on electoral reforms is with the union cabinet for consideration. People are fed up of corruption, and the best way to end it is to get in only clean representatives. If you don't want people to come to Jantar Mantar, the reforms must be passed.
What is being done to raise the voting percentage?
Low turnout is limited to cities, and due to urban apathy and disinterest among the youth. We have set up a voter education division that runs campaigns such as "Pappu Vote Nahin Deta", which worked well in Delhi. "I have not voted" should not be a fashion statement. It should be a matter of embarrassment.
What about paid news?
It is a distressing phenomenon. However, the silver lining is that 95% of the media is against it. There have even been politicians who have complained against it. We have set up a media monitoring committee to check this. "Paid news" is a form of deception, and we are looking at what legal action can be taken against that. Political parties also have their own TV channels. We will calculate the airtime used by such parties on these channels and put it against their poll expenditure.
Some say the ECI is a toothless tiger. Candidates file false assets declarations and get away with it. In 2004, the ECI had pointed this out to the Prime Minister.
The dilemma is some people think we are "monsters", while others call us "toothless". The fact is we are the most powerful election commission in the world. But there are issues that are not in our domain. Like debarring a criminal has to be done by an act of Parliament. We use the powers we have judiciously and ruthlessly. Electoral reforms have become a necessity.
How about the right to recall an elected representative?
This is more an academic issue, though a very serious one, and it is pending with a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court.
No action is taken against candidates spending more than the limit.
The law is if someone spends more than the limit, it becomes a "corrupt practice". To take cognisance of that, the competent authority is the high court, not the CEC. We can act only if the expenditure detail is not filed within 30 days of the election, or it's not as per the man-ner prescribed, for which can disqualify.
How about state funding of candidates?
Disastrous. The commission is totally against it. This demand has been gaining ground in response to the corruption in elections. However, it is not the visible expenses, but the black money in cash that bothers us. State funding will not check that. My priority is to go after black money. We have set up an expenditure monitoring division with a director general from the Income Tax Department. Economic intelligence departments are also involved.
Any proposal for auditing their funds?
The accounts should be audited by an approved panel of chartered accounts and the audited financial statements of the parties should be put on the website. There is a ban on the release of government advertisements highlighting their achievements after the imposition of the code of conduct, yet parties in power often indulge in a publicity blitzkrieg.
This is also one of the reform proposals. We have recommended that such ads should be banned six months before the polls. We will need an amendment in the Representation of the People Act to implement the proposed measure.
Is the expenditure limit of Rs 40 lakh and Rs 16 lakh for parliamentary and assembly polls, respectively, rational?
The limits were raised to this level recently. Anecdotally, we know that the actual expenditure is 10 or 50 times that at some places. But after the limit was raised, we found that the average expenditure submitted by the candidates in one state in the recent elections was just 60% of the limit.
Do you think online voting, particularly for armed forces personnel, is viable?
The purity of the election process will get compromised. There is always the danger of hacking, and elections could be hijacked. Someone can put a gun to your head at your home and ask you to vote as per his wish.
How practical is the idea of negative or neutral voting?
We have recommended that a "none of the above" button should be put on the electronic voting machine to provide voters the option of neutral or negative vote. However, I believe that instead of a neutral vote, we should be electing the right candidates.
Is there a case for holding assembly and parliamentary elections simultaneously?
This suggestion is becoming louder. Everything is possible. It will require constitutional amendment. Very difficult, but worth considering. After all, frequent elections are a drag on everybody, including candidates.
Is there not a case for common electoral rolls for all elections from panchayat to Parliament?
Yes, that is desirable and we are trying for it. We need booth-level data, whereas ward-level data is required for local body elections. The ward-level data could be masked for us.
Deletion of genuine voters' names from the electoral rolls is rampant in Punjab.
Quite right. This is a serious problem. We keep a watch on the fidelity and health of the electoral rolls. We have appointed block-level officers who will help the voters get their names registered in seven days. But people too should check on their names in time, instead of rushing at the last moment.