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‘Bar criminals from contesting elections’

If TN Seshan is credited with bringing the Election Commission (EC) centre-stage, his successors, including SY Quraishi, must be thanked for bringing in reforms to make the EC proactive, people-friendly and instilling its officers with a sense of confidence. Like Seshan, Quraishi too has often been in the eye of a storm for taking on those in power. In this exclusive interview with Kum Kum Chaddha, Quraishi talks about the institution and what needs to keep it going. Excerpts:

Sy Quraishi, Former Chief Election Commissioner

gfiles: What are the issues in the forthcoming election?
SYQ: Every election is essentially the same, with a little variation. Fortunately, muscle power is history; we now have security, advance planning and vulnerability-mapping of booths. We have to ensure that the people vote fearlessly.

gfiles: A peaceful election is not synonymous with a fair one…
SYQ: Quite right. There could be peace because people have been intimidated. So, we have ensured that people come out and vote fearlessly. Voter apathy in urban areas has been a matter of concern. Now, through communication and a voter education division, we have persuaded people to come out to vote as a matter of right and duty. Voter slips was an innovation that worked very well. Every government acknowledges that move as being a game-changer. It was first tested in Bihar in 2010 and the turnout was very high. We replicated this in other States and, in some cases, the turnout was over 80 per cent.

gfiles: I will not take away the credit due to you, but you would agree that a high turnout is, at least in the present context, an indicator of people’s anger.
SYQ: Incumbency and anti-incumbency is an ongoing process. When we reached out to people, particularly the young, many did not even know that 18 years was the eligible age to vote. We told them to vote to prevent dishonest people from coming to power. A low turnout suits criminals. People’s anger is a contributory factor, not a decisive one.

gfiles: A great deal has been achieved. Yet there are gaps which remain to be plugged.
SYQ: Yes, there are concerns. Those persons against whom there are serious criminal cases, should be debarred from contesting elections. A debate is on whether this infringes on their fundamental rights, but a counter to it is that there are a large number of under trials in jails who too cannot vote. So, if you can take away their voting rights, what is the big deal in denying those the right to contest against whom cases are pending? We have suggested safeguards, which include debarring those who have committed heinous crimes, those against whom an FIR is registered at least six months before elections and charge sheets have been framed by a court of law.

gfiles: So the stumbling block are the governments…
SYQ: Yes, governments are reluctant for they have a quota for these guys.

gfiles: What about use of black money in elections?
SYQ: We have taken stern steps in this regard. The money mafia attempts to capture power and if a candidate takes a few crores, he has to return it in kind. So, the underlying necessity is to make money. Both, the politicians and the bureaucrats, get involved in this. Once the two instruments of governance come together, there is no stopping them.

gfiles: What role does foreign funding play?
SYQ: In Tamil Nadu, one party, after spending huge sums publicly, declared that it knew the winning formula—the Thirumangalam formula of paying `5,000 per voter.
We were determined to replace it with the EC formula–to hold fair and free polls. Several PILs were filed against us, but they were disposed off in our favour.

gfiles: The Thirumangalam formula is now outdated because the voter is very smart. He takes the money on offer, but votes according to his will…
SYQ: You are right. We encountered this in many places. In Kerala, for instance, we thought petro-dollars flow in. But people told us that since voters take money from everyone and vote according to their own will, there was no point in wasting money.

gfiles: The model code of conduct is tokenism because governments announce welfare schemes much earlier and, in that sense, beat the 45-day deadline…
SYQ: Quite right, but we have a limitation. Before and after the election we are powerless. We cannot circumvent the democratic system. We must work within a framework. Laws exist but are not followed, except during those 45 days.

gfiles: Does that mean that the EC is more effective than the government of the day?
SYQ: We work away from political pressure and political considerations. The same bureaucracy that is always under attack, delivers when we are in charge. They are competent, but they must be allowed to function. You can do everything with bayonets except sit on them. We can, in 45 days, fight a war, but it’s not a permanent solution.

gfiles: Recently a Chief Minister announced freebies and the EC can do little…
SYQ: Freebies can be announced through an election manifesto, over which we have no control. Even the Supreme Court has held that it is not a corrupt practice. So, how can we change that?

gfiles: The EC can overcome this by holding an election a bit earlier and spring a surprise…
SYQ: In a phased election, 45 days actually become longer. We tried advancing the election once and it was challenged in court on grounds that the EC is trying to paralyse a democratic government.

gfiles: Seshan brought the EC centre stage…
SYQ: Seshan’s contribution to the EC is singular. He increased its visibility and enhanced its stature. Hats off to him. We can disagree with his language—saying things like “I eat politicians for breakfast”.

gfiles: So, Seshan cracked the whip while you brought in imagination.
SYQ: Our styles were different. I was soft, but stern.

gfiles: But, he took the fun out of elections…
SYQ: If that was true, then the turnout should be low. We are giving you a people’s festival minus the noise, nuisance and cacophony.

gfiles: Any advice for the forthcoming elections…
SYQ: The moral authority of the government has suffered because politicians have developed a bad image. Public perception is that sab neta chor hain, which is dangerous for democracy. We have good leaders. But the bad elements have to be removed. My advice to politicians is to remove the villains. For the people, it is to go out and vote and things will change.

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