Misuse of money and media now a formidable challenge for regulators, says outgoing CEC Rawat
Misuse of money and media becomes a formidable challenge to any regulator, said outgoing chief election commissioner OP Rawat on Wednesday. In an interview to Smriti Kak Ramachandran, Rawat said all stakeholders should insulate the polling process from excess use of money and social media for ensuring the sanctity of the biggest democratic exercise. Rawat’s tenure ends on December 2. Edited excerpts:
As your tenure draws to a close, how do you review your term? Any disappointments?
I have only one regret. We felt elections laws have to be subjected to a comprehensive review to align them with current and futuristic election environment such as social media and we constituted a committee (to review the Representation of the People Act) that did the exercise, but my tenure as the chief election commissioner has been packed with back-to-back elections, so we could not devote time to that. We have suggested amendments to the law ministry. This is the only thing I wanted to do because once the legal system is updated to measure up to the challenges thrown by the other stakeholders then it is easier to hold free and fair elections.
Otherwise, I feel satisfied that whatever else I had thought of at the time of joining the EC has been done since the assembly poll in Bihar to the Chhattisgarh election. Elections have been peaceful and there has been an overall high voter turnout and high participation of women and physically challenged. There has been an improvement in the purity of electoral rolls. All the petitions that were filed in courts about electronic voting machines and electoral rolls have been dismissed. That shows the commission has been able to able to streamline processes.
When electoral rolls are purified, then participation is reflected objectively it if is inflated. Like in Bengaluru for instance, there is a lot of voter migration so there are duplicate entries, that is why the voting percentage has never crossed 60% there. We term that as urban apathy without realising that there are other factors.
You often spoke about the increasing misuse of money during electioneering.
The use of money and social media in elections are the concerns of election management bodies globally. Elections abroad have been affected apparently most adversely on these counts, where as in our case money is typical in certain states and constituencies, which are known as expenditure-sensitive. There was no issue of money in Mizoram, political parties requested that ceiling on expenses by candidates should be lowered from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 8 lakh. But wherever this is a problem (misuse of money), our flying squads have taking action and during the current round of elections in five states we have seized cash and freebies worth Rs 229 crore, of which Rs 131 crore is cash.
How can this misuse be checked?
The first step is to put a limit on the expenses of political parties. An expenditure ceiling by candidates is not sufficient. Many expenses... do not have candidates name. Whenever something is caught, it emerge as party’s doing. This suggestion was first made in April 2013, a reminder was sent in 2016 and more recently again.
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Have electoral bonds made funding transparent?
Our expenditure division will brief the commission by the end of this week. So far, we don’t know how they have worked. As for other funding aspects, we feel all donations should be made known, no matter how small the denomination. It cannot be permitted that 100% donation is coming in small denomination because that encourages black money and money from unethical sources.
What other reforms should the EC focus on?
The focus right now is only on money, media, decriminalisation of politics and adoption of technology to facilitate different categories of voters so that their participation goes up.
Are political parties doing their bit to clean up the process?
Political parties are coming forward to undertake reforms. Like I said, in Mizoram they wanted to bring down the limit on candidate expenses. These are the stakeholders who know best what will be an improvement in the existing system to bring more fairness.
In the past you dubbed paid news and fake news as threats to the electoral process.
Money and media combined become a formidable challenge to any regulator.
Who can step in to check this?
Everyone, there are responsible people in media and among the corporates. Everyone is a stakeholder in our elections and they must come forward and contribute to step up because power has a typical character, if it grows beyond a certain dimension then no one can rein it in. Like it happened in one of the democracies recently, when the presidential elections was held and the opposition candidate went to Supreme Court, which annulled the election because it was rigged; by the time re-election was called, neither the SC nor the EC had enough members to form a quorum. No platform for redress was available and then the leader of the opposition had to withdraw and 99% of the 34% votes polled went to one person. India is nowhere close to that, we are better off since it is a concern and it is growing it is better to nip it in the bud.
The Maharashtra state election commission has said if NOTA (none of the above) option receives the maximum votes in a constituency, then none of the contesting candidates will be declared the winner and fresh elections will be held. Can this be replicated?
NOTA was introduced after a ruling by the SC. What has happened in Maharashtra cannot be done, because here there is a provision in the law that EC shall declare the candidate with the highest number of votes as winner, here NOTA is not a candidate, therefore, we can’t invoke plenary powers under article 324 of RP Act.
Some political parties have called for reviewing the first past the post system? Will this be considered?
It requires a larger debate as it might be construed as tinkering with the basic structure of the constitution. People in India are mature and intelligent voters and they keep giving signals. About 20 years back I was one of the observers in a local body election where the candidate for the Mayor’s post of one party won with a huge margin, where as 70% of the corporators of another party were elected. The people’s reasoning was that the candidate for the Mayor’s post was clean but not the rest of the candidates.