V S Sampath believes that the Election Commission should be given greater autonomy and more power for its effective functioning. He advocates for a strong law to curb the practice of paid news. He has suggested the Parliament to take up right to reject. Advocating such a move, he said, “Right to reject is an idea inherent to democracy, whose time for execution has come.” He talks about the measures being taken by the Election Commission for the coming general elections and the challenges it faces in ensuring a free and fair election. Excerpts from an interview by Kum Kum Chaddha:
gfiles: What is the biggest challenge in the forthcoming general election?
VS: I would categorise it in two groups—the challenge of scale and the challenge of quality. As for the first, the statistics are mind-boggling—814.5 million voters, 11 million polling personnel, 1.4 million electronic voting machines (EVMs), 9.30 lakh polling stations, etc. Then there are regional, religious, ethnic complexities and cultural and linguistic diversities, plus the geographic spread of these elections. These factors raise intimidating logistics and management challenges, like maintaining a database, training and deployment of polling personnel and material and transport management, ranging from bullock carts to helicopters—sometimes even elephants and donkeys. Add to these, information management and a free flow of information.
Then there is the challenge to ensure that elections are free, fair and peaceful, that a level playing field is provided to the contestants in the electoral fray, and that there is good and genuine participation of voters, uninhibited by any kind of money or muscle power.
gfiles: How do you ensure this?
VS: Through a slew of measures like enforcement of the model code of conduct, taking direct control and supervision of bureaucracy and police force and, more importantly, including the weak, vulnerable and marginalised sections of society in the electoral process. The bottom line is to ensure that eligible voters are included in the electoral rolls and ineligible are struck off, and that there is a free and fair election in the country.
gfiles: Peaceful elections do not necessarily mean fair elections. It often translates into goons being out on the streets while the disadvantaged and oppressed remain indoors out of fear. In such a situation, how will you ensure a peaceful and fair election?
VS: Peaceful elections need not necessarily mean fair elections. However, we try to ensure that elections are free, fair, peaceful and participative. Some steps we take include deployment of adequate central armed police force, special law and order drives to execute pending non-bailable warrants, rounding up of rogue elements, search and seizure of unlicensed arms and ammunition and illicit liquor, a comprehensive mapping of each polling station for vulnerable pockets of voters, followed by confidence-building measures vis-à-vis the vulnerable, and preventive action against the intimidators.
The EC has for the past several years recommended that persons, against whom charges have been framed for offences punishable with imprisonment of five years or more, should be debarred from contesting elections till the disposal of their cases
gfiles: Your predecessor SY Quraishi had taken several steps to strengthen the Election Commission. How much of his work are you taking forward and what are you striking off?
VS: Dr SY Quraishi, my predecessor, took several initiatives to strengthen expenditure on monitoring, voter education and participation, and we continue to pursue these goals.
gfiles: TN Seshan took the fun out of elections? Would you do anything to turn the clock back?
VS: Excuse me for saying so, but your question is unfair and uninformed. Mr TN Seshan is known for his yeoman service as CEC by arresting the decline in election standards and setting benchmarks for purity of polls. Subsequent incumbents to the office of CEC have built on that and taken the process forward.
gfiles: How do you intend to tackle criminalisation in politics and candidates with dubious backgrounds?
VS: The EC has for the past several years recommended that persons, against whom charges have been framed for offences punishable with imprisonment of five years or more, should be debarred from contesting elections till the disposal of their cases. However, till the time the law is not amended, candidates with dubious background cannot be prevented from contesting.
gfiles: What about the use of black money in elections? How will you curb its use? Is it possible?
VS: Checking the use of black money in an election is a major challenge. The Commission has taken several steps in this regard, including 24×7 complaint monitoring cell with a toll-free number, flying squads to attend to complaints, static surveillance and video surveillance teams to keep watch on movement of cash or any major expenditure in the constituency, accounting team to maintain Shadow Observation Register for each candidate, district-level Media Certifying and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) to watch all paid news and advertisements, associating with income tax department to keep a watch on black money, particularly the hawala operators and pawn brokers, and also to alert Air Intelligence Unit in airports and ask banks and Financial Intelligence Units to send suspicious transaction reports relating to candidates and parties. All the candidates and parties are asked to avoid any cash transaction during the election process.
gfiles: What about the distribution of freebies? Politicians circumvent this and get the better of the EC model code of conduct by announcing them much earlier. Once they know elections are round the corner, they start making announcements before the code comes into operation. In that sense, they defeat the purpose?
VS: The model code of conduct (MCC) comes into force from the date of declaration of election schedule. Hence, the EC does not normally interfere with policies, programmes and announcement pre-dating the period of MCC. However, pursuant to directions of the Supreme Court and after due consideration of the views and comments of political parties, the Commission has recently included guidelines for election manifestos. These include that election manifesto shall not contain anything repugnant to the ideals and principles enshrined in the Constitution; the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution enjoin upon the State to frame various welfare measures for the citizens and, therefore, there can be no objection to the promise of such welfare measures in election manifestos.
In the interest of transparency, it is expected that election manifestos reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it
However, political parties should avoid making those promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process, or exert undue influence on the voters in exercising their franchise. Further, in the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, it is expected that manifestos also reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. The trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled.
gfiles: Does the government put roadblocks in the way of effective implementation of EC measures?
VS: The Commission has been engaging with the government for past several years over its comprehensive agenda for electoral reforms that includes proposals on decriminalisation of politics, making the offence of bribery in elections a cognizable offence, deregistration of political parties as well as providing for compulsory maintenance and audit of their accounts, inclusion of paid news as electoral offence and corrupt practice, ban on government-sponsored advertisements six months prior to the expiry of the term of the House, etc. I will only say that given the potential that these reforms have for cleansing the polity, in general, and the electoral process, in particular, they brook no delay in implementation.