Interview | National

Fake news affects voting behaviour in a big way: O.P. Rawat

Om Prakash Rawat. File   | Photo Credit: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Outgoing Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat says the panel has created a constituency for the EVMs, with elections in Tripura and other States setting at rest doubts.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during your tenure as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). Has it been resolved?

The biggest challenge as CEC was back-to-back elections throughout the year and it is almost getting resolved. I took over in the midst of Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland polls. All those elections were very sensitive, because of issues like the terrain and underground cadres. But, that went off very well. In fact, in Tripura, one major issue was the doubt on electronic voting machines raised by a political party. They felt that for the past five elections, the same machines were used and the CPI(M) got a majority and therefore, they should be changed. The Commission turned down the demand. The machines were changed in Meghalaya and Nagaland, but not in Tripura. When the result came, they realised that there was no problem with EVMs, as this time they won the polls. Then in Karnataka, one major party was demanding ballot papers. Then, we launched a massive public awareness campaign on EVM and VVPATs [Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail]. We created a constituency for EVMs. That has been followed by the elections in five States.

Any regrets?

I wanted to focus on putting up a revised legal framework, involving social media, abuse of money and other emerging threats. Such threats didn’t exist when our laws were framed. Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act [which bars election related publicity in the last 48 hours leading to voting] only talks about television or cinematograph. Now television and cinematograph is on your mobile, there are also social media platforms. I wanted that to be reviewed and realigned to the emerging and futuristic needs. We constituted a committee which submitted recommendations.

As this year has been full of elections, we have not been able to devote time to go through them and finalise our suggestions to the Union Law Ministry. It seems my successor CEC may also not find time due to the Lok Sabha elections.

The EC has recommended a series of measures for electoral reforms. What are the most important ones that need urgent implementation?

One important electoral reform relates to money in which if a ceiling on political party expenditure is brought in, it will improve the expenditure and campaign finance regime. It should be more transparent with a level-playing field. As being reported in the media, only the ruling party is getting everything… almost 90%.

For democracy to survive and thrive, not only a very effective ruling party is required, but an equally effective Opposition. So we should have something in place which regulates these things in a manner that is more conducive to democratic processes.

The second important reforms pertain to the media, including social media. Fake news affects voting behaviour in a big way and right now, the only mechanism is Section 126 and EC instructions on paid news. We have to bring in a robust mechanism for conduct on social media platforms, which we are working on. We have already interacted with organisations like Google and WhatsApp. The EC will take a call on all those discussions.

As regards paid/fake news, since the matter is sub judice in the Supreme Court, I won’t be able to tell much on that.

However, that is also an area where a lot of improvement is needed.

Campaign financing has been a major issue

Campaign finance should be available through transparent means. The ruling party will of course always have an edge, because everyone feels that the ruling party can help them in some way and so, they contribute.

It can also be for personal reasons, if they subscribe to the same philosophy and thinking.

An honourable court of the U.S.A. has already said that corporates express themselves through political donations; it is covered under the fundamental right to freedom of expression. So, with that view, they can express themselves by giving anything to anyone.

You stressed on the need for use of technology to address issues related to data security and counter electoral-malpractice measures. Going ahead, in what ways will technology impact electoral process?

The Commission, from the very beginning, started adopting technology, such as the ARO Net, through which all the 4,120 assistant returning officers across the country are connected. Then there is use of EVMs and VVPATs and one-way electronic voting. The R&D project for two-way electronic voting is under way. cVigil [mobile application launched recently by the EC for public to share audio-visual proof of election-related malpractice when the Model Code of Conduct is in place], is a very potent initiative in terms of empowering voters. We received about 4,000 in Madhya Pradesh itself. About 60% of the total complaints were verified to be correct and action taken.

In Chhattisgarh, we got about 1,400 complaints and it was close to 2,800 in Telangana. The response has been good.

What lies ahead for the EC?

My worthy successors are bright and hands-on and they have been exposed to the working which is required of them to enhance the image of the Commission.

The challenges will get tougher and tougher by the day, because of the emerging technological developments, social media, money and other factors. However, they are well-equipped to handle those most effectively.


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 8:55:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/fake-news-affects-voting-behaviour-in-a-big-way-op-rawat/article25637223.ece

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