Chief Election CommissionerN. Gopalaswamijustifies the seven-phase elections for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly stretching for over a month. In an interview toThe Hindu,he says though the period was a little long it has ensured free and fair polls in the State. Excerpts:
How do you justify the seven-phase polls for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly? There is criticism that you stretched it too far. If this is for one State, what will be the position for the general elections due in 2009?
The point here is whether you conduct a good election or not. Out of the seven phases, six have gone without many incidents. There are re-polls in just six or seven polling stations against over 100 in the three-phase 2002 elections. By and large, the conduct of elections has been quite satisfactory so far.
In our appreciation, for each polling station it was necessary to have a full security arrangement. So, out of 403 constituencies we should not have more than 55 to 60 constituencies per phase. Otherwise, 100 per cent security cover for the polling station is not possible. A total of 680-odd companies of Central security forces were used and the coverage was 95 per cent in the 1, 4 and 7 phases, otherwise it was 100 per cent coverage. Three phases would have meant no 100 per cent coverage. I am not saying seven is a magical number, which we could stick to. Our calculation is if you want to have 100 per cent security cover you need to have seven-phase elections. So we planned on that basis. In West Bengal, we had five phases for around 49,000 polling stations. In Uttar Pradesh, the number of police stations is 1,13,000. So seven phases is very reasonable. Even for the general elections one month may be a reasonable period.
You say re-polling is less this time. To what do you attribute this?
The main issue is security cover that ensured no disturbance to the polls. That is one of the reasons we opted for the seven-phase polls to ensure security cover to polling stations to the extent of 90 per cent and above.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh has criticised the Commission for the poor voter turnout, saying you created a scare among voters.
I only want to ask you a question. If 50 per cent of voters in a constituency can come and vote, to say the other 50 per cent is scared, how far is it justified? Mind you, the average polling in these places never exceeded 60 per cent in previous elections. On an average it was less by 10 per cent this time.
Is it because bogus voting has been prevented this time?
I would certainly say that. Because this time we created a record to ensure people came to vote with some identification.
In that process where genuine voters not allowed to vote?
In the first phase, we said ration cards could be used by the head of the family who has a photo and the rest of the family could be identified by him. We found in some places the presiding officers misinterpreted this to say that because other members did not have photographs they could not vote. In order to tackle such a situation, we had a methodology of assessing issues that arose in each phase of poll and we corrected the mistakes in the next phase.
The Commission has been praised for the use of EVMs. How far were they useful? Even in Western countries, EVMs are not working that satisfactorily.
The EVM has worked satisfactorily here. We count polling station wise, so which polling station went which way can be found out. This has been there ever since the EVMs were introduced in a big way in 2001. This is nothing new. This time each activity in the EVM is time stamped, which will say what time the machine was opened and at what time a voter voted. The machine used there [in the West] and machine used here is entirely different. There it is capable of interaction. Here it is a one-way process. I would say our EVM is something like an adding machine. There is no interaction. In Western countries there is an interactive mode. They also allow access from outside. You can access for voting from outside. Whereas in our EVM there is no interactive system. No manipulation is possible. It is foolproof.
What do you say to the BJP's criticism that the Commission is not fair in its approach, as it had not taken any action against Congress president Sonia Gandhi or Railway Minister Lalu Prasad, who flouted the model code of conduct?
Each person has his own point of view. There is no proportionality. You have to look at the content of the violation and then decide the approach. It cannot be that there should be one single rule and everybody will have to be dealt with on the same line.
When are you going to decide on the BJP compact disc issue?
Very soon, may be in the next few days.
Why do you say exit poll should be regulated? Will it not amount to interference with press freedom?
We don't interfere. It is our view in a multi-phased poll, the exit polls of each phase, if the results of the exit poll are aired in each phase, it will influence voters in the next phase. That is something to be seen that voters should not be influenced. I don't say that we interfere with the freedom of the press. Freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is also not unfettered. What we say is it is likely to disturb the level playing ground and is likely to influence the voters one way or the other. Therefore, it should not be done.
How do you distinguish between exit polls and insta polls (results in the midst of polling)?
Insta poll is a different issue. It is definitely a violation for a different reason. All activities relating to poll propaganda will have to be stopped 48 hours prior to the closure before the poll. This is for everybody. Political parties cannot hold a meeting or canvass support. So there is a ban on that. Since insta poll comes within 48 hours it violates that provision. We came across this only in Punjab and not in Uttar Pradesh and we have recommended registration of cases.
What is the Centre's response to the Commission's suggestions on electoral reforms?
Nothing much has really happened. We plan to have a meeting again with the Law Ministry and persuade them to take a decision on these issues. I am also told that in the Parliamentary Standing Committee meeting, the Law Ministry has been asked to proceed quickly on the suggestions. There is still scope to improve upon our suggestions.
What is the Commission's role in the presidential polls? There is apprehension that the new MLAs in Uttar Pradesh cannot vote if they are not sworn in.
We announce the elections at the appropriate time. After that the process goes on. Whosoever constitutes the Electoral College is eligible to vote.
In the event of a hung assembly in Uttar Pradesh, if no one is able to form the government, what will happen if the newly elected representatives are not sworn in?
It is outside our jurisdiction. On May 11, after counting is finished we give a certificate of due constitution of the House and give the list of the duly elected representatives to the Governor. After that it is outside our jurisdiction. Who forms the government we are not concerned.
Has the Commission succeeded in curbing money power in these elections? What is the role of the observers?
We will say no. We have not achieved 100 per cent to ensure that. This is a shadowy world, we can reach beyond a certain extent. But definitely the expenditure observer asking accounts every three days, checking them, put some pressure on the candidates. Political parties gave money to candidates for election expenses but many of them could not spend the full amount. I would say that strict enforcement of the model code of conduct ensured that vulgar display was curbed. To that extent there was reduction in expenditure. If you ask me whether candidates spent within the overall ceiling limit on expenditure fixed for candidates, I think it was generally followed in breach.
You have been a Commissioner, now you are the CEC. When T.N. Seshan was the CEC there was an allegation of one-upmanship. What is the difference you have faced? Is the Commission functioning in harmony?
If there were differences you people would have come to know. There is no problem now and prior to that also. Did you come across any difference of opinion in the Commission? There could be three opinions on some issues if three people are there, it is a question of resolving the issue, and by and large it has been resolved.
Do you welcome a five-member Commission?
No. The present system is quite satisfactory. I don't think a five-member Commission is any answer.
How many office-of-profit cases the Commission dealt with and disposed of.
Of the 53 cases, opinion has been rendered in 49 cases. In the case of 264 MLAs, opinion has been given in 220 and the remaining will be dealt with soon.