"This time, actually for the first time we have prohibited some of the hate speakers from conducting meetings."
At the end of a gruelling general election and on the eve of counting of votes, Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath spoke to B. Muralidhar Reddy and Varghese K. George on a gamut of issues. Though visibly tired, Mr. Sampath fielded questions ranging from those about the allegations against the Commission to the supposed differences at the top towards the end of the marathon election.
The Hindu: There is a widespread perception that the Election Commission has been slow in its response to changing situations, lenient towards erring politicians — kind of pacifist.
Mr. Sampath: We have a model code of conduct (MCC). There are as many as 16,000 FIRs so far in this election. It is not as if action is taken in every case at the Commission level. We administer election management and [do] not get into the nitty-gritty. We come into the picture only when necessary.
On the BJP representation [about the appointment of the Chief of the Army Staff], you will also appreciate that there is another view that in the name of the MCC, the commission is paralysing governance. The governance of the country cannot come to a standstill for two months in the name of the MCC. The Commission will have to look at these issues very carefully, more so on critical or sensitive appointments. That is why as early as March 27, the commission conveyed its views to the Defence Ministry that matters relating to defence, including recruitment and promotion, need not come to the Commission.
Have you not made the government vulnerable to the charge that it is in a hurry to make last-minute high-level appointments, considering that it had moved you early about the Army Chief’s appointment?
There is no such thing. It is for the government to choose its timing. On timing, you can always ask if something is done today, why wasn’t it done yesterday or after three days. The Commission is not in the business of passing value judgments on who should have done what at what point of time.
In the case of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi entering an EVM enclosure in a polling booth, you made a decision within three days. In contrast, there is no clarity till now on the case filed after the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, flashed the party symbol and addressed a gathering outside a polling booth in Ahmedabad on April 30.
In the latter case, where we found that the actionable point is under Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, a direction was given to the authorities to take a certain course of action. After that, it is a matter of investigation by that authority.
The Commission will not get involved in day-to-day monitoring of such cases.
So the FIR against Mr. Modi stays?
Regarding the other [Rahul] case, the factual position had to be ascertained. We waited for a report.
The moment it came, we found that there was no irregularity.
In three days, you could make a decision?
Three days or four days is immaterial. You ask for a report. The report comes. It is not as though there is undue haste in one case or undue delay in the other.
Another decision which came in for criticism was stopping a rally of Mr. Modi in a Varanasi locality. The BJP’s allegation has been that in the same locality on a subsequent day, another rally was allowed. Can you enlighten us on why decisions were different?
The decision to allow a rally or not is taken by the competent authority at the field level. The Commission does not do that kind of micromanagement.
When something comes to our notice, all that we try to find out is whether the competent authorities have exercised due diligence. However, due to the stature of the personality involved in this case, we were not content with the inputs given by the District Magistrate and Returning Officer. The matter was further checked at the highest administrative level, with the Chief Secretary and the Director-General of Police.
Remember, all this we were doing on a poll day when one phase of the election was taking place. After finding that people had come to conclusions after due diligence, it is not possible for the Commission to superimpose its judgment on their judgment.
More allegations of booth capturing and rigging have been made in this election than in the past polls, especially in West Bengal and some places in Uttar Pradesh. The Left says there are 1,100 instances of booth capturing. Have you looked into the matter?
There are standard procedures to examine the request for a re-poll. We have an elaborate mechanism — there are district- and State-level control rooms, and polls are also monitored at the national level. All requests for re-polling, allegations of rigging and booth capturing, etc., are referred to the returning officer. Normally a day after the polls, the Returning Officer and the EC observer sit together in the presence of election agents and do what is called a scrutiny.
When the first round of voting was taking place, the BJP released its manifesto. No action was taken, though many thought that it was in violation of the Representation of the People Act.
We got complaints from the Congress not only for the release of the manifesto but also for the filing of nomination papers in Varanasi [by Mr. Modi on April 24] on a poll day, which was accompanied by a roadshow telecast all over the country.
But all these have to be examined with reference to Section 126 of the Act and according to legal expertise available with the Commission. In respect of the two instances, the action was not in areas where polling was taking place.
There is another perception that the Commission has not been effective in curbing hate speeches, personal attacks and challenges that came from people occupying high offices. Why have you been so soft?
Please compare the action taken in the past. It is not as if in the past, people were hanged or sent to jail. You are all talking as if this kind of caution or censure was given only this time and not on earlier occasions.
I have been part of the Commission — this is a three-member Commission — for over five years. There has been no great change in the wording of the order given under the MCC. I can assure you that much. This time, we have prohibited some of the hate-speech makers from conducting meetings. This was an action taken for the first time. The charge that we have been soft or lenient is unfounded.
What legislative or administrative reforms are needed to make the EC more effective?
We have seen that we have ample powers under Article 324 of the Constitution. But at the same time, this power can be exercised only when there is a vacuum in the law. So while there is a provision in the law, you cannot exercise it.
This is something that has to be sorted out. This and many others are part of our electoral reforms proposals.