“When a country is impatient, when it has young voters, they will begin to even out”

Aberrations in the electoral system such as the disregard for expenditure limits, criminality among some candidates and paid news will fade away over a period of time, feels the former Chief Election Commissioner, Navin Chawla.

Expressing optimism that the growing impatience of the youth with the major problems that beset the electoral system would lead to changes, Mr. Chawla said he reckoned that if one could envision the situation over the next decade or so, many of these aberrations would not appear to be insurmountable. “These will even out over a period of time. When a country is impatient, when it has its young voters, I am very positive that they will begin to even out,” Mr. Chawla said in an interview to The Hindu.

Important reforms and good practices had emerged from the political system itself over the past 60 years, and these aberrations, too, would be resolved through it. For instance, Mr. Chawla said, the Model Code of Conduct enforced in the run-up to elections, a feature unique to India, was a “creature of the political process.” “It is another matter that it has been upheld by the courts, but it emanated from the political sphere, from the parties.”

The Election Commission (EC) had its own limitations in dealing with such issues, but he had his own suggestions. For limiting expenditure, there ought to be a combination of regulatory and self-regulatory mechanisms. Most candidates would be income tax assessees and possess Permanent Account Number (PAN) cards. This fact could be utilised to monitor their expenses through the income tax authorities themselves.

“Candidates can open accounts, and expenses out of it can be scrutinised by the respective Income Tax Officers. The ITO's views can be given at the first instance to the EC, which also has its own observers. With their help, the EC should take a final view which, in any case, will be justifiable,” he said. State funding, doing away with the limit or raising it by two or three times were all options, but there was little unanimity. Human ingenuity breached expenditure barriers everywhere, he said.

On the issue of disqualifying candidates with criminal antecedents, Mr. Chawla said the EC had suggested disqualifying those against whom charges had been framed for ‘heinous offences' such as murder, attempt to murder and rape that could attract prison terms of five years and above. The matter was under the consideration of parliamentary committees, and a solution could be found by members. “They can define the offences, or raise the benchmark to six or more years. I think there is a middle ground which can be found by the next committee.”

If only political parties gave up the tendency to see ‘winnability' as the sole criterion for selecting candidates, and saw the electoral arena as a level playing field from which criminality ought to be eased out, they could address this problem, he added.

Mr. Chawla disagreed with the suggestion that by-elections be dispensed with to avoid conditions conducive for misuse of official machinery and bribing of voters with cash and gifts. “The ground situation may change, and by-elections could be a true test of public opinion. It will be less than fair if we don't hold them or deny representation to any constituency.”

He said the multi-member Election Commission had ensured continuity of good practices in its functioning. On the question of equality among all members, he said the only pending issue was that the manner of removal of Election Commissioners was different from the one prescribed for the Chief Election Commissioner, even though they were ‘equals' as far as decision-making and emoluments were concerned.

While the CEC can be removed only by impeachment, the other commissioners are removable on the recommendation of the CEC. “I tried to equalise this. There is a mismatch between the status of the CEC and the ECs in this respect alone,” Mr. Chawla said.

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