In a series of newspaper interviews on Sunday, Nasim Zaidi, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) who retires on 5 July, pointed to a slew of proposed electoral reforms that deserve national attention.
Zaidi told the Hindustan Times he would have retired with more satisfaction had the government agreed to make political funding more transparent. Zaidi also reflected upon the years he spent heading one of Indian democracy’s most important institutions.
When asked by The Indian Express which electoral reform was the need of the hour, Zaidi said political funding must be transparent. Zaidi did not mince words, saying the government's recent moves vitiated transparency rather than improving it.
Zaidi said: “The recent amendments to the Companies Act has done away with profit-making clause for companies to make donations. They also no longer need to disclose the break-up of contributions made to different parties. Of course, corporate funding will increase as there is no limit to how much they can donate. Loss-making companies will also qualify to make payments. People want to know details of corporate donors to check for quid pro quo and if any benefits are passed on to such companies by the elected government.”
Zaidi said recent amendments enacted by the Centre would keep people from knowing details of corporate donations.
Speaking to The Times of India on the issue of electoral bonds, Zaidi said: “The recent amendments to Representation of the People’s Act have affected transparency in political funding. Contribution reports of political parties need not mention names and addresses of those contributing by way of electoral bonds. We have written to the government that this way parties will never file contributions received through electoral bonds. And if commission will never get to know of the contributions — and EC regularly displays such information on its website — people will also not get to know.”
How many retiring CECs speak with such candour, rub the government the wrong way and most likely forfeit the opportunity to get a lucrative post-retirement assignment that the government hands out to 'loyal' officers?
Clearly, when Zaidi took those parting shots at the government, he did it out of regard for his office and the public interest. But it isn't as if Zaidi waited until it was time to step down. He has been making these points since finance minister Arun Jaitley introduced electoral bonds in this year's budget; since then, Zaidi wrote several letters to the government to reconsider the matter. However, so far, the government has refused to heed the concerns about transparency raised by the Election Commission (EC).
Replying to a question on electoral bonds by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, the EC said in May: “These bonds can only be bought through cheque\e-transfer and therefore clean tax paid money could be used for political funding through electoral bonds… However, the amendment in Section 29 C of the Representation of the People’s Act, 1951, making it no longer necessary to report details of donations received through electoral bonds, is a retrograde step, as transparency of political funding would be compromised…”
Zaidi and the EC have also taken up with the government the fact that while the finance minister in the budget amended the law to ensure all political donations above Rs 2,000 were to be made by cheque, the Representation of the People’s Act was not amended to lower the donation threshold to be declared to the EC from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000. Zaidi said: “The act continues to provide opaqueness to contributions between Rs 2,000 and Rs 20,000. This must be addressed.”
Zaidi also flagged several other issues. Replying to a question about the EC demanding the power to make bribery a ground for countermanding polls and the government’s refusal to accept this, he said: “The correspondence on making bribery a ground for countermanding has been going on since 2016. Bribery has been happening repeatedly. Even in the latest RK Nagar bypoll, Rs 100 crore was distributed. In the last round of Assembly polls in five states, Rs 350 crore cash was recovered. The past year’s experience of flagrant abuse of money reinforces our belief that we must get powers to countermand polls on grounds of large-scale bribery of voters. EC will continue to pursue the matter.”
Zaidi also said he had been the government to take up two other bribery-related measures for free and fair polling, but to no avail. “The first is to make bribery a cognisable offence. Second, we want offence of ‘paid news’ criminalised with punishment for two years.”
However, despite the obstacles in his way, Zaidi and his team have succeeded in upholding the EC's credibility through the state elections conducted in the past two years. In the process, the EC has received brickbats from both the Centre and the Opposition, a sure-fire sign that it is doing something right.
In the run-up to last year's election, the Mamata Banerjee government initially refused to carry out the CEC's instructions to transfer several district magistrates and police officers who allegedly favoured the ruling party but the EC stood its ground and threatened to countermand the election. Banerjee had no choice but to back down.
The EC also acquitted itself well during the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) controversy. After it was drubbed in several elections, the Aam Aadmi Party alleged that EVMs had been hacked to favour the BJP. While that did not explain the Congress' landslide victory in Punjab, the EC invited all political parties, particularly AAP on 3 June to a 'hackathon challenge'.
The outcome was that the EC reaffirmed the belief of the people in free and fair elections.
Zaidi has not merely summoned courage to raise the fundamental issues to make the electoral process more credible. He has, through his dignified conduct and measured words and actions, upheld the sanctity of a constitutional position crucial for the survival of Indian democracy.
We, as Indians, must be proud of Nasim Zaidi.
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Updated Date: Jul 03, 2017 10:11:37 IST