Political parties find EVM an easy target, says chief election commissioner

In an interview to HT, chief election commissioner OP Rawat cites data manipulation by technological firms as the biggest challenge for the poll panel.
Chief election commissioner OP Rawat.(Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)
Chief election commissioner OP Rawat.(Sonu Mehta/HT Photo)
Updated on Oct 01, 2018 08:00 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | BySmriti Kak Ramachandran

As it prepares for the elections in five states and the 2019 general election, the Election Commission (EC) is focusing on three major areas — abuse of money in polling, fake and paid news, and the concerns of political parties as they crop up — says chief election commissioner OP Rawat. In an interview to Smriti Kak Ramachandran, Rawat cites data manipulation by technological firms as the biggest challenge for the poll panel, apart from speaking about EVMs, simultaneous elections, and charges of bias levelled against the commission.

The seizure reports during the last few assembly elections indicate that the illegal use of money in elections continues to plague the democratic process. The Supreme Court, however, dismissed a petition to make bribing voters a cognisable offence. What will be EC’s course of action?

We are monitoring how these [cases of seizures] can be brought to a logical conclusion. We are focusing on how many cases are resulting in conviction and how much forfeiture is made; so that the seized money and penalisation of culprits act as a deterrent.

Secondly, we are making it very easy for anyone to complain through a new app C-Vigil, increasing the number of flying squads in expenditure-sensitive constituencies, and using closed circuit televisions and static surveillance teams.

Third — this is a suggestion that was made at an all-party meeting — we will be seeking a ceiling on party expenditure.

The audit inspection of candidates and maintenance of shadow expenditure register is also being looked into vigorously. The commission has asked expenditure-observing teams to ensure that their training is up to the mark and their assessment is accurate.

Is there any legal recourse that EC is planning?

That is what we have been asking for. In case there is rampant money distribution, EC should be given the legal powers to countermand polls, like there is a provision in law for booth capturing.

The Supreme Court has left it to Parliament to frame laws to bar convicted candidates. Many former CEC’s and activists have expressed concerns and they think the court should have spelt out how to do this, because legislators cannot be trusted to do this on their own. What is your view?

I feel when you have trusted them to govern the country, how can you not trust them [to do this]? Wherever we feel there is a void in the law, hampering the process of decriminalisation of politics, we have plenary powers under Article 324 to act. We will never hesitate to do that. We countermanded three elections for rampant distribution of money and it was upheld by the Supreme Court. The commission has an advantage -- wherever it feels that because of a void in law things are unregulated or vitiating the atmosphere, it can fall back on its powers. We will ensure that decriminalisation takes places effectively and comprehensively.

How will candidates agree to the suggestion of spending money on advertising their criminal antecedents as was suggested by the court?

We have reviewed this decision and how we plan to go about it will be in public domain soon.

The commission had asked the government to amend laws to bar people from contesting from two seats or, at least as a deterrent, a candidate who vacates a seat necessitating a bypoll should be asked to deposit an appropriate amount in state coffers. These demands have been opposed by the government.

We had suggested this reform and will continue to review the progress on this issue. Beyond this, I don’t think there is any need to do more. These are areas which are mostly in the political domain and they are best judge as to whether these should be done.

Earlier, it was many seats (candidates could contest from several seats), they have brought it down to two seats. So, they are reforming.

A year ago, you spoke about the ‘creeping new normal of political morality’ and premium on winning at all costs — to the exclusion of ethical considerations.

There will always be the scope for improving things. This I said exactly one year ago… I feel in the past one year, things have not deteriorated. Nothing of that sort has been seen. This shows our political class is also concerned and it also tries to improve the situation.

The lack of transparency in political funding has emerged as a big concern.

This is one area where we have to work very hard. Money being distributed as cash and freebies has come under severe surveillance by the election commission. We have found that because of very strict surveillance and checks, money is manifesting in many innovative and different ways in elections. Therefore, we will have to think in terms of augmenting the jurisdiction of the election commission because our jurisdictions starts after the announcement of polls and continues till the results are announced. It is a short period.

We have seen that everything starts much earlier now. When they know elections are only four to five months ahead, things start moving -- cash is moved to vantage positions and people are tasked to distribute it to prospective voters who are ready to jump on the bandwagon. We have to think on the lines of how to stop that.

Secondly, instead of the direct bribing of voters, it is now moving to technology and big data firms and services such as targeted communication on social media, and analysis on where to focus so as to tilt the voting behaviour in a party’s favour. All these sophisticated techniques, which may cost a bomb, are being resorted to. From directly being given to the voters, money is now being given into the hands of these firms who are trying to manipulate the margins to change the election outcomes in favour of the client.

Since the Election Commission does not have any wherewithal to monitor all this effectively and nail them, we have to depend on complaints. Even the electorate or other political parties don’t have the capability to find out such manifestations and raise a complaint. So that is one area of worry where we will have to do a lot of brainstorming and come up with some imaginative steps.

How is the commission bracing for this challenge?

We have spoken to social media platforms and got their cooperation during the campaign period. They have agreed to take down the campaigning material.

There are many things we need to watch out for. If you read the progress of investigations in elections that have been allegedly manipulated abroad, its an eye-opener; what cannot be done is just not visible. We are taking all possible steps to prevent any adverse impact on our elections.

We have seen some political parties question the EC’s credibility. It was accused of bias when it announced the schedule for the Gujarat election, and the Aam Aadmi Party has been among the parties that have questioned the commission’s fairness.

I was reading a book ‘How Democracies Die’. The authors (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt) have written that when parties start accusing institutions and technologies for their fate at the hustings, that is the point which should worry all stakeholders. As far as the EC is concerned, it takes such criticism in its stride because being a referee of a match where if you lose, you are in the dumps, we have to be there like a punching bag. We have to bear it.

Same kind of punching is being inflicted on electronic voting machines (EVMs) and now the paper trail (VVPAT) machines. VVPATs were supposed to reinforce the efficacy of the EVMs.

These (VVPATs) are totally new machines being used for the first time — there will be challenges, the man-machine interface will fail, some or the other function will fail; but we will keep learning and improving. Initially, the EVMs were failing in large numbers, but after 20 years, the failure rate is 0.7%. After polling personnel reach a higher level on the learning curve, things will improve. Political parties find these machines easy targets.

Some parties have been suggesting the state funding of elections to control spending and for a level playing field.

State funding in the present scenario will not improve anything. Funds from all sides can still vitiate the atmosphere. And state funds might be a minuscule part of it, and you may be just trying to divert a torrent by holding a fig leaf in your hand. It will look like a foolish exercise. Unless we come up with a solid framework to stop the abuse of money in the political process, we should not be thinking in terms of state funding.

The Centre is pushing for simultaneous elections, even though it requires political consensus as well as a change in law. What needs to be done to roll out this change, and will it really be effective in curbing spending and cutting down on administrative gaps in delivery of projects?

No empirical finding has been conducted to quantify how much saving in terms of money and manpower and other resources will be made [by simultaneous polls]; how much effectiveness in administration will come because the model code of conduct will not be in place. Whatever is put in the public domain is a subjective impression of things.

For example, since Lok Sabha goes to polls with four other states, we need about 2 million EVMs for one million polling stations. If we go for simultaneous polls, we will need nearly 3.3 million EVMs and VVPATs; and these will be used once in five years. The lifespan of these machines is just 15 years; so in case of simultaneous polls. these machines will be used for three elections as compared to six-seven times. The maintenance cost will be higher, because of a larger number of machines will be required to be held. The mortality of these machines will be higher, because the chances of an electronic machine not in use, developing snags are higher.

All those factors have to be studied. One can say the deployment of polling parties and forces will be only once, with more numbers, so there might be a saving there. Campaigning by polling parties will be reduced, their expenditure is likely to come down; but one cannot be sure because they might spend more since there is no ceiling. Hypothetically speaking, they might say since the election is only once in five years, let us spend more.

As far as the federal structure is concerned, there might be no effect. We were having simultaneous elections till 1967. Our democracy has come of age and our voter has shown that they can’t be taken for granted.

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