A few years ago, Sunil Arora, then secretary in the newly set up skill development ministry received a call on a very busy day on his office landline. His driver had suffered a seizure. Arora got up with a start, took a lift in this journalist’s car to rush to the crowded government hospital in central Delhi. He made his way through a maze of people to reach his driver who lay writhing on a stretcher at the far end of the corridor. Arora held his driver’s hand and said: “Don’t worry, I will take care of everything. Get well soon.” In all certainty, the promise was kept.
That was the softer side of the 1980-batch Indian Administrative Service Rajasthan-cadre officer. But his professional and clinical side is equally overwhelming.
In the next few months, eyes will be riveted on Arora, India’s Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), as he organises and manages the Herculean effort of human history’s biggest date with democracy till now—holding India’s parliamentary polls.
Known to hold his own to his political bosses during his career as a bureaucrat, Arora wants a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) panel to audit the funds of political parties. “The Election Commission of India (ECI) has already sent a proposal in this regard to the ministry of law and justice that the CAG-appointed auditors should do it. Meanwhile above expenditures of a certain level, the ECI does give it to ICAI (Institute of Chartered Accountants of India) to look into it”.
Some basic figures to give an idea of the complexity of the impending elections. In the 2014 polls, the Indian electorate comprised 815 million voters. The number of polling stations was about 930,000. More than 11 million security people. In all likelihood, Elections 2019 will pale out Elections 2014 in terms of sheer numbers and complexity.
A lot has been reported on the significant role black money has been playing in the Indian elections. Even in the recently concluded state polls for five states (Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana), about Rs 146 crore had been seized by the authorities.
“There have been reports, not just in the recent elections but over the last 8-10 years that money, freebies, whether in the distribution of cash or clothes or liquor, have been playing a role and trying to vitiate the elections. What has happened is that over a period of time with all kinds of advancements in ICT, elections are happily becoming more and more insulated but at the same time just as there are a lot of positive stakeholders there are a lot of people who are interested in getting a positive result for themselves by whatever means by fair or foul. More foul than fair,” says Arora.
“The question is if Rs 146 crore has been seized there could be more that has not been seized. So the seizures should be even more, but equally important is that all the legal steps required should be taken more swiftly decisively and ruthlessly.”
On the standard operational procedure in combating the black money menace, the CEC says: “From ECI, for many years now we have expenditure observers drawn essentially from the revenue department to keep a strict tab. We get the accounts of the candidates every third day even during the elections. We get the accounts of the parties even after the elections too. Whenever we go to the states for review of the election preparedness, we have the central government enforcement agencies and during that time the DGs of income tax department, of the investigating wings, they tell us that they have taken all kinds of precautions. In fact they are upping their level of precautions with every successive election in terms of air monitoring units, field units, etc.”
But what new measures does the ECI have this time?
“ECI has to conduct elections as per Article 324 (of the Constitution) but at the same time it cannot take the role of the income tax department or customs or any other agency. Everybody’s trying to come up with more optimal measures and enduring solutions but to say that ECI alone can do it would be slightly overestimating it,” says the poll panel head.
Arora doesn’t seem very agreeable on the idea of state funding of elections. “I don’t think so. As it is, the state spends huge money in elections in the management and administration of elections. Movement of lakhs of central paramilitary forces, their allowances, their stay arrangements, all these cost huge money but there would be lots of issues in case state funding takes place. Far more in depth consideration by all the stakeholders including political parties is required.”
So how big is that figure? “I wouldn’t like to discuss that,” the CEC says.
On the controversial issue of electoral bonds—a financial instrument that political party donors can buy and donate to their preferred party—Arora skirts it by saying “it is for Parliament to decide the law of the land”.
However, he promises a detailed look on another aspect of funding of political parties which allows foreign entities including companies and businessmen to donate. “This needs to be gone into greater detail by the ECI. At the moment we are too caught up with the organisation and management of elections. We just got free from the elections in five states and before that we had elections in Karnataka, in Gujarat, in Himachal. So we will soon start looking at these issues and we will form a group if required and include outside experts after the Lok Sabha elections.”
With the big polls looming, Arora is a very busy man now—not in the least in allaying fears over serious charges that EVMs (electronic voting machines) can be tampered with. The allegations were made by a ‘Syed Shuja’, a self-proclaimed US-based Indian cyber expert during a much-hyped 21 January London conference that he addressed via Skype.
“There is a difference between tampering or manipulation and malfunctioning. Tampering and manipulation of EVMs cannot be done. They are standalone machines and are not connected to anything. Malfunctioning does happen once in a while and immediate measures are taken to rectify. In fact there is a technical expert committee which goes into every technical aspect of EVM manufacturing. This technical expert committee has been there for almost two decades. The present chairman is a professor emeritus in IIT Delhi, who was associated with the earlier technical committee also. Moreover, EVMs are manufactured in two facilities that also make defence equipment. So they are secure. And they are manufactured purely in India,” Arora says, trying to allay the EVM fears.
“There was so much hype over the London conference but it turned out to be a flop show. Whether the person’s (Syed Shuja) name is correct or not, we don’t know at this stage. He was never in the rolls of ECIL (Electronics Corporation of India Limited) like he claimed. On whether he acted on his own or he was sent by somebody or somebody was orchestrating this behind the scenes, we have some information from here and there but we don’t have any evidence. We have also lodged an FIR with the Delhi Police to get into the details of this and investigate this entire matter. We cannot be intimidated, pressurised or for that matter bullied by such tactics.”
“But why it feels bad is because so many people are working almost 24x7 for years to make the system secure, to make it tamper-proof and then they all feel demotivated and dispirited.”
On the clamour for simultaneous holding of Lok Sabha and state assembly polls, the CEC says: “Law Commission has also supported it, so it is a highly desirable goal. But definitely not in the coming elections. Because, you have to align the life of the Houses in the Centre as well as in the states. And that alignment can be done by legal amendments.”
Refusing to be drawn too much into whether Indian democracy will do better with the Proportional Representation (PR) system as against the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) that India has at present, he says: “The existing law doesn’t support it. I will say only that much at this stage.”
Of the about 1,400 registered political parties in India, only about 70 are functional and contest elections. More than 1,300 are defunct for all practical purposes and exist merely for illegal purposes. So what can be done?
“Some amendments have been suggested to the ministry in this regard. They are under consideration. But my own view is that ECI should not become an arbitrator of the fate of the parties. That would be assuming a different role for the ECI altogether. This is also about strengthening the powers of the ECI. However, ECI should be empowered to ask more and more detailed questions in case of non-compliances but not deregistration,” Arora says.
Holding the same official position where former CEC Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan demonstrated the wholesome might of a constitutional position, Arora fights shy of emulating him. “I am not very grandiloquent, so I just work under the radar. But I have plans. I try to go on a purposive and objective manner without fear or favour. After I end my term in office it is for the stakeholders to say and to judge.”