Outgoing CEC OP Rawat says there is no integral problem with EVMs, raises concerns about fake news

Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat demits office on Saturday after a rather hectic term in office. Rawat said his “only regret” as head of the poll panel is that the Election Commission was unable to recommend to the Law Ministry a fresh “legal framework” in tune with the changing times vis-a-vis the use of money and social media, especially since the time had come for there to transparency and a ceiling for expenditure incurred by political parties.

Can you explain how a glitch in an EVM and VVPAT will not alter election results, especially since suspicions on this score continue? Political parties continue to express apprehensions about these glitches in EVMs and VVPATs. If it so foolproof, why do these apprehensions continue to crop up as is witnessed in one election after another?

That question should be best put to them. I can only say that any machine whether, created by man or God, does develop malfunction some time or the other. There are hospitals for men and workshops and factories for machines which need rectification. These are machines and these need rectification at times.

OP Rawat

File image of outgoing Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat. PTI

So, you are saying there is no integral problem with the machine?

None whatsoever as has been certified by experts from across the country.

Do you think a return to the ballot box is a good idea as is being demanded by some political parties?

Voting by ballot box had many disadvantages. Booth capturing through muscle power is just one of them. But more than booth capturing, there is the whole issue of stigma being cast on voters. More than victory margins, invalid votes were known to be cast and there were allegations that people do not know how to cast votes. Maligning of voters over the issue of victory margins was a common refrain. All this has been done away with by the introduction of EVMs. In an EVM, it takes 15-20 seconds for every vote to be cast, so you don't have to be there for five to six hours. All that has been totally obliterated.

You have emphasised that paid news and fake news are areas that Election Commission has to monitor in a much bigger way. We have all seen that the alleged misuse of social media has put the whole US presidential election under a scanner. What is the Election Commission's firewall to these kinds of attacks?

All this will be on the increase unless effective regulatory mechanisms are put in place involving both election management bodies and IT regulatory bodies throughout the world. We are seized of the matter and have organised interactions with social media bodies such as Twitter, Facebook and others.

These are all foreign organisations?

Our officers interacted with their country heads who are all based in India and they have given us a commitment that their advertising spends and sponsorship money paid for both candidates and political parties will be given to us so we can tabulate it to the expenditure incurred by the candidate and the political party. We have tried this on a pilot project basis in the Karnataka elections and the process is continuing in the current Assembly elections on in four states. Whatever gaps are visible during this pilot will be discussed following these elections so that we can have more effective mechanisms put in place for the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. The idea of further discussions with them will be to plug the gaps.

But this seems to be a gigantic exercise.

It is but we have to deal with it. Technology is developing willy-nilly and we have to keep abreast. That is why we have created our own social media hub in the Election Commission.

How many techies do you have in that hub?

I don’t have the exact figure but it is a good team who are working 24X7 in this area now.

Are you convinced about the sanctity of electoral bonds? How exactly are you going to tackle the whole issue of political donations?

The Election Commission had raised concerns about electoral bonds when the Finance Bill was passed in 2017 and these bonds were ushered in. We were then told raising this issue now was premature since the scheme had not been formulated. No details on this score had been revealed then. The scheme has been notified on 2 January and the commission has got greater details now, which our expenditure division is looking into. They have prepared a paper on this which should have been put up today (Friday). It will be discussed at the next commission meeting where the issues of how far our concerns have been addressed and what more needs to be done will be discussed. And on the basis of these discussions, these issues will be raised with the government.

Political donations also remains a grey area, especially since Election Commission cannot monitor it. You are on record as stating that none of the Election Commission's demands in this area have been addressed. What should be done to address this issue?

We are keeping a tab on expenses on the basis of contribution reports and audit accounts.

But that depends on what they choose to reveal.

Audited accounts will reveal all details, including money they have spent. But whether electoral bond scheme is addressing our concerns will be known in the next meeting that will be convened by the new CEC.

When do you see the number of VVPAT lists being increased so that they can tally with EVM numbers? Once they are increased, do you see simultaneous elections being held both for Lok Sabha and Assembly elections?

These are two separate matters. Synchronising VVPATs with EVMs is being done. Regarding simultaneous elections, these can only be done if there is a legal framework in place. No such legal framework is in place. We will need more VVPATs and greater logistical support but that is not the requirement now. For the present, we will continue on the mode of election after election and for that, we have enough machines.

You have been quoted as saying that elections in Jammu and Kashmir have to be held within the next six months. Do you think the situation there is viable for holding elections?

Panchayat elections were held, municipal elections were held, so why can’t Assembly elections be held?

Do you see simultaneous elections taking place there?

I can’t say. The new Election Commissioner will take a call at the appropriate time. All this will depend on the state of preparedness, the local situation, weather and so forth.

The Model Code of Conduct is often violated by those who even occupy high offices. By the time you examine a certain case and act upon it, the damage is already done. The violation serves its purpose and by the time you act, the polls are usually over. How has the absence of a time-bound and result-oriented process affected the Election Commission's intent to keep polls free and fair?

The Model Code of Conduct is quite an innovative idea which is being implemented only in India, though it does not have any statutory back up. Our political parties have come to a consensus and are all willing to adhere to this Model Code of Conduct. Wherever there is any complaint and violation, the Election Commission steps in and takes corrective measures.

But most of the time, the Election Commission's steps come in too late. It becomes a fait accompli most of the time.

On the contrary, we act within 24 hours of receiving notification. On two occasions, when the Election Commission's directives were flouted, were violated, we put the campaigners on silence mode and they had to adhere to it.

What were their names?

That should not be told by me.

It's not wrong to call India a land of migrants. Why is a person, suppose from Agartala but working in Thiruvananthapuram, denied his or her legitimate right to exercise franchise? We have postal ballots but at a bare-bones level. How long will the country have to wait for the day when all its eligible citizens can vote no matter where they are?

I agree with this entirely and we are working to find a solution to this so that we have a situation where the entire population can vote wherever they are. Now for the people in the armed forces, instead of postal ballot, we have the ETP VS (Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot), which is a one-way electronic journey which reaches them immediately. They then download, put in an envelope and send. In the last Himachal Pradesh elections, 67 percent voted. Earlier, the number of armed personnel voting was pathetic.

For the others, some day, we will have the technology and secure system in place that will allow everyone to vote. But that is still in the lap of technology. We have to see.

What is going to be the fate of voters of Assam who do not make it to the final list of the NRC?

These are two different processes. NRC is for citizenship while enrollment is a judicial process. One thing is certain, if an individual’s name is in NRC, his citizenship is established, he will be enrolled to vote. But if the name of an individual is not there, he will have to prove his citizenship before the Registration Officer, and if he can prove it, he will be enrolled.

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Updated Date: Dec 01, 2018 17:54 PM

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