Editor's Note: This is the third in a ten-part series of interviews with well-known residents of Delhi on issues that they believe define the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
The first Muslim to have served as Chief Election Commissioner of India, Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi is perhaps the most written-about CEC after TN Seshan, the Chief Election Commissioner in the nineties. If Seshan is credited with cleaning up the elections, Quraishi’s pitch was to reform the way elections were held in India. He also attempted to translate the Model Code of Conduct as one which has morality built into it.
A case in point is the by-election in Goa in 2012 during the tenure of Manohar Parrikar. As chief minister, Parrikar decided to elevate a candidate as minister in his Cabinet. Not one to let go, Quraishi had a message sent to him stating that this would disturb the level playing field. An angry Parrikar had then called Quraishi to remind him of his “constitutional right” to appoint a minister at any point in time.
“Sir,” said Quraishi, “you are 100 percent right. It is absolutely your constitutional right. I was just pointing out the moral authority of the model code.” Parrikar thawed: not only did he defer his decision but publicly stated, “I am sacrificing, surrendering my constitutional right on account of the moral authority of the model code.”
The greatest contribution of Quraishi to India’s elections is setting up the Voter Education department in the Election Commission in 2010. Its flagship program, SVEEP — Systematic Voter Education for Electoral Participation — has ushered in a participation revolution. All elections ever since have registered record turnouts, particularly among young people and women. The launch of the National Voters Day in 2011, celebrated every 25 January, has proved to be the biggest youth empowerment program of the world. And the establishment of the Expenditure Monitoring Division has taken the fight against money power to unprecedented levels.
Quraishi’s other themes are state funding of elections, barring politicians with criminal charges from contesting, denouncing hate speeches and opposing electoral bonds on grounds that they make transactions secretive and opaque.
Recently he was in the news for reasons of the heart. Love united him with an election commissioner in Nepal. The two had met in Mexico during a conference. It started with discussing elections in their respective countries but the two bonded personally too.
Quraishi is a music buff having created his own version of the guitar and is known for organising musical soirees.
Describing India as the world’s “noisiest democracy”, Quarishi underlines the importance and significance of “free and fair elections have been central to India”.
Describing India as a “trailblazer in many aspects”, Quraishi says that the strength of India lies in the founding fathers adopting the system of universal adult franchise. He remarks, “Here was a country, dealing with the horrors of social fragmentation and partition, with an illiterate population of 84 percent which, despite all possible odds, ensured equality of all people. The Constitution reposed faith in the wisdom of the common people to elect their representatives. While many postcolonial democracies fell prey to dictatorships and extremism, we have survived and thrived.”
“I do not claim that elections alone ensure justice, but they are a starting point for realising the constitutional ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. In India, the primary aim of elections is choosing representatives that can bridge crippling inequalities through progressive legislation and affirmative action”.
Stressing on the importance of women's participation in elections, Quraishi said, “By extension, we were also a trailblazer on women’s suffrage. It might seem like an obvious course of action today, but the comparisons are revealing. The United States took 144 years to confer equal voting rights on women. The United Kingdom took a century until women voted in 1928. The Australian aboriginals voted in 1967. In Switzerland, women voted in 1971”.
“Hence there is much to celebrate about where we have come. Yet the challenges, both old and new, are fast emerging. These call for swift and decisive action. Thanks to political lethargy, electoral reforms are pending. The EC’s calls for depoliticisation of constitutional appointments, curbing money power in politics, inner party democracy and decriminalisation of politics continue to fall on deaf ears, which is highly unfortunate."
Lamenting that the agenda of women’s political representation remains unfinished, he says that India still remains a highly patriarchal society with an abysmal sex ratio: 940 women per 1000 men. He adds, “Women face a whole host of cultural and socio-economic hurdles.”
Crediting the Election Commission with ushering in a revolution of sorts in women participating as voters, Quraishi rues the fact that these voices remain suppressed. He says, “The reason is the sorry state of their numbers in legislatures- 12.15 percent in the Lok Sabha, and poorer in most Vidhan Sabhas. This is shocking, seeing as the world average is 24.3 percent, with Rwanda ranking first and having 61.25 percent women in Parliament. Even conservative Muslim nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan have better numbers! Nepal leads the way in South Asia and has dramatically improved women’s numbers in all levels of government”.
“Women were allowed 33 percent reservations in local bodies in 1993, which was later increased to 50 percent in 2009. A number of states have introduced 50 percent reservations in municipalities, but at upper levels of government, representation still eludes them”.
Quraishi pins this to political parties' reluctance to give enough tickets to women, citing low winnability. Dismissing this to be a “myth”, Quraishi cites statistics: “The proportion of women winning elections has been more, thus implying that their winnability is actually much higher. Some parties have now woken up to this, for instance, the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal. The time is ripe for the women’s reservation bills to be a reality”.
“However what is worrying is the rising intolerance and our slipping on crucial indicators including fundamental rights, civil liberties, civil society participation and media integrity. Statistics reveal that in 2017, India slipped 10 straight positions, from 32 to 42. It ranked 41 in 2018, with no improvement in scores,” Quraishi said.
He added, “The wave of toxic politics started with the Babri Masjid dispute, which subsided, only to rise again. Majorly, elections and vote bank politics perpetuate it. The basic ethos of India remains the same, based on the secular Hindu tradition of tolerance. India remains secular, because Hindus are predominantly secular....Add to this, unemployment, pollution and unsustainable development, which must be tackled. It is also a matter of concern that we continue to be classified as a flawed democracy by various democracy indexes. Therefore, we need to set right our national priorities, and this we must do on a war footing."
Emphasising the need for a reform agenda, Quraishi says, “A robust democracy needs mechanisms to resolve differences through dialogue and for that, we need a comprehensive reform agenda. Only this will transform our largest democracy to be among the world’s greatest. This calls for serious introspection among all stakeholders about the kind of India we aspire to live in...As a country, we are disgusted by the divisive propaganda and hate speeches made by politicians for short-term gains. Such politicians, and with them, we the people must rise above communalism, casteism, hate-filled identity politics and stoking 'fear of the other' amongst different sections. A tolerant and progressive society has no place for the low level of political discourse which is prevailing among parties. This must stop and we together — all of us — must stop this”.
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Updated Date: May 06, 2019 12:00:41 IST