Since 2011, the Election Commission of India 25 January has been marked as National Voters Day to promote electoral participation among citizens. It was on 25 January, 1950 that the Election Commission of India was established, with Sukumar Sen as the inaugural Chief Election Commissioner. Since then, the apex election body has successfully been conducting elections on all levels, ensuring the India's pre-eminence as a multi-cultural democracy.
As India readies itself to elect the members of the Lok Sabha, the Election Commission has a herculean task of executing the world's biggest electoral exercise in the coming months. However, with the Opposition raising concerns over alleged manipulation of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), the Election Commission is facing one of the toughest challenges in the last seven decades.
Former Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath, however, has been backing the EC to do yet another fantastic job in 2019. For Sampath, the ECI remains the 'gold standard' in conducting free and fair elections. The 1973-batch Andhra Pradesh cadre IAS officer spoke on Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), proxy voting for Non-Resident Indians, NOTA, simultaneous elections and much more. Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:
You were the CEC when India voted in 2014. What were the challenges you faced organising the biggest electoral exercise so far?
It was a major logistical challenge for us. Like any general elections, it required over a year’s preparation. We needed the cooperation of the entire electoral machinery to pull it off. There were other challenges too, like security. We have different terrains in India, many of which are very sensitive – politically as well as in terms of security. We had many political party delegations asking for deployment of central security forces in their states. But constraints meant that we had to conduct elections in several phases in states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar. Despite the issues, I have the satisfaction of having conducted the polls successfully.
We also saw the highest voting percentages in 2014 elections. What did your team do to encourage this change?
Taking advantage of the summers, we kept the election timing between 7 am and 6 pm – 11 hours. Before the elections, we made sure that the revision of electoral rolls was done in a systematic manner. We ensured proper security arrangements in Naxalite areas, which I believe helped achieve highest vote percentages there. Generally, it is a difficult task to ensure high voter turnouts in several parts of India. But these measures surely played a role in enhanced voter participation.
Many in Opposition have been demanding that Ballot papers be re-introduced in 2019 polls. What’s your take?
CEC Sunil Arora has already made it clear that we will only be using EVMs in the upcoming polls. I think that is the right decision and I support it. There has been no one so far who has been able to decisively or convincingly prove that our EVMs can be manipulated. People have been casting aspersions on EVMs but these machines continue to be fool-proof. However, elections involve a lot of stakeholders. To assure them, I am told that the ECI will be using VVPATs at poll stations to ensure there are no misgivings. However, that said, EVMs are here to stay and there is no question of going back to ballot papers.
In Haryana municipal polls, NOTA was considered a fictional candidate. Do you think that NOTA should be given more power in future?
NOTA came out of a Supreme Court directive when I was the CEC. When the Supreme Court sought our opinion on NOTA, we said we were ready but had been waiting for change in the rules. The court also asked our legal counsel if the EC could implement NOTA and we answered in the affirmative. Thereafter, the Election Commission has implemented NOTA in every election. Nevertheless, whether NOTA should be given more power is a matter which is up to the lawmakers. As far as I know, NOTA usually garners one to two percent of the total votes in various Assembly and Parliamentary elections. Given its miniscule share in total votes, we have not yet reached a stage where there is a need to give more powers to NOTA. If such a situation arises in future, it is for the lawmakers to decide.
Leaders like Varun Gandhi and Anna Hazare have been pitching for the “right to recall” a representative. Do you believe such a law is feasible?
These demands have been raised from time to time. This prospective law has fascinated many educated voters. However, the size of the country is huge, both in terms of population as well as land. Additionally, different elections are held at regular intervals in every part of India. Given such a scenario, this law does not seem feasible. One must understand that “right to recall” technically means a referendum on the sitting representative. If someone passes a motion seeking a recall of the lawmaker, it would entail a cost to exchequer. We would be in a state of perpetual elections. This would create uncertainty in the minds of candidates, elected governments as well as the voters. With governments having slender majorities, this law could certainly lead to political instability.
The Centre is mooting simultaneous elections to state legislatures and the Parliament. Can this be happening in the next few years?
This requires a lot of structuring and constitutional amendments. However, there needs to be some political consensus on the issue. There is no feasibility under the existing laws so amendments are required. Even in the case of NOTA, I have seen that the track record of the Legislative in passing amendments to rules and laws for electoral reforms has been poor. So, the question of simultaneous elections will remain unanswered till the time the Parliament takes some action on the issue. Till then, it will remain only a matter for theoretical discussion.
Concerns have been raised over privacy and secrecy of proxy votes by NRIs. What do you expect from the proposed law?
The matter is now in the Rajya Sabha. Let the lawmakers take a call now. I believe secrecy of the vote is sacred. This must not be infringed by the Bill. The independence of the voter is equally important. In some Gulf countries, many workers are kept in poor conditions; even their passports are taken away. In such a scenario, will they be even allowed to freely exercise their adult franchise? Lawmakers must seriously consider such cases before passing this law.
Estonia has a robust internet voting system. Is digitally resurgent India ready for such a change?
Electronic voting can be a fascinating idea. It was even tried for municipal elections in Gujarat but had very few takers. Even if voting takes place in sanitised condition in a polling booth, we often receive complaints of political intimidation. If we consider internet voting in poor areas in the absence of election officers, what will be the fairness of the polling? There could be inducement as well as intimidation during such a vote. Unless, we develop some maturity as a polity, I don’t think internet voting will work.
What is the one major reform that you want the Election Commission to contemplate on?
Due to rapid economic development, there is a lot of mobility. A resident of Bihar may be working in Maharashtra and a resident of Maharashtra may be working in Tamil Nadu. Hence, many miss out on voting as they were registered somewhere else. The Election Commission must work towards solving this problem. The rules do allow people to vote in their place of ordinary residence. However, this law must be constructively interpreted. Citizens must be empowered to vote in their place of work, without any hassle or malpractices. This will surely enrich democracy in India.
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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 12:46:03 IST