OPINION

‘EC’s biggest challenge is parties’ use of tainted money in polls’

Shanker ChakravartyShanker Chakravarty  

A day before he bows out on Wednesday, July 5, as Chief Election Commissioner, Syed Nasim Ahmad Zaidi looks back at some controversial decisions the commission has taken during his term. In an interview to The Hindu , he says he is leaving the Election Commission with the satisfaction of having maintained the standards set for the institution. Excerpts:

As you demit office, do you leave the Election Commission weakened or strong?

Work at the Election Commission is a continuous process. For quite some time, the commission has been quite strong. I don’t think it was weakened at any point in time. Certain bars were set, and each successive commission has not only been maintaining those standards but also enhancing them. When I took over, I also took a pledge that I would enhance the bar. And after a long inning, I am leaving with a sense of satisfaction that I have brought about many changes, both internally and externally, in the management of elections which has left our institution strong. It has enhanced its reputation and has the trust and confidence of the people. The commission is, in fact, better now.

We ask in the context of the decision of the Central government which has not consulted the commission before introducing an amendment to the Representation of the People Act (RPA). As per the RPA, the commission ought to have been taken into confidence before the amendment was moved.

The commission’s concern is with regard to transparency in contributions and donations to political parties. And the commission, not now but for a long time, has been emphasising transparency in contributions. People must know who has contributed to whom and how much is the contribution. We have always insisted that the bulk of the contribution and donation that is received by political parties is not shown in the contribution reports to us. That is why we have been recommending that the ceiling of Rs. 20,000 [for cash donations], which forms part of the contribution report, should be lowered. And that is why I made a recommendation in December and at least in the Income Tax [Act] Rs. 20,000 has been reduced to Rs. 2000 [for cash donations]. Any amount above this has to be paid through a trackable mode. But in the RPA, it continues to be Rs. 20,000. So there is an inconsistency which has been communicated to the Law Ministry to bring IT Act and RPA Act in consonance. We have read that in the RPA Act, the contributions received through electoral bonds will not be shown by political parties. We have conveyed that these amendments will impact transparency. As far as the amendment is concerned, I will not comment because it is a parliamentary procedure.

In the context of paid news, stringent action has been taken against a candidate who is also a Minister in the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. Do you consider this as a high point in the commission’s activities in your tenure?

Yes, this is a proper utilisation of the constitutional and legal powers because the phenomenon of paid news is a big issue for us in so far as the abuse of money is concerned. Our experience shows that quite a good amount of tainted or black money goes into paid news and more resourceful people are able to indulge extravagantly in paid news and this creates an unequal playing field because those with more money, more resources, will have more opportunities to publish paid news, contrary to the ground realities, and create a different projection which will influence voters. So we are saying that paid news must be criminalised so that if somebody is punished for the crime of paid news, he must be disqualified. This is a pending legislation, so we have used the powers already conferred on the commission under Section 10-A [for disqualification of a candidate] to pass the recent 70-page order, because paid news is never disclosed in the returns of the candidate and that is where the catch lies. There are vigilant people outside and such activities will be caught.

You also mentioned the newspapers that published paid news. What about them?

We can only catch hold of our candidates. It is for relevant agencies to follow up.

The EVM security had become a major issue recently. Has the matter been settled now?

In three months we took innumerable steps to remove this doubt from the minds of people, and I am satisfied that after the challenge we threw open, none of the parties came forward and two parties came for learning purposes. We issued a detailed press communiqué. I think the issue is well settled that our EVMs cannot be tampered with. We have asked for material evidence, if somebody gives us evidence, we will investigate and take necessary criminal action. We will not spare anybody. We have taken a very big step. We are going to be the first country in the world to have 100% audit trail. It is going to be a big challenge to launch VVPAT [voter-verified paper audit trail] which will be installed in all polling stations. We have designed an effective strategy to spread awareness among voters to use the VVPAT. We have sought suggestions to further strengthen EVMs and anybody who has evidence of tampering them, we will be happy to investigate.

Yet, why arm yourself with powers to issue contempt orders like the High Court if you say the Election Commission is strong? Doesn’t it enjoy trust and confidence among people?

I must put the matter in correct perspective. Probably it did not go down [as] well as we expected [it to]. We are aware of the criticism and we welcome that. A wrong impression has been generated that we need power.

As you mentioned, we enjoy tremendous confidence and trust of the people. We don’t need that power. But that is not being vocal enough (laughs).

What do you mean by being vocal?

Some leaders of some political parties occupy most of the space everywhere. So, a wrong impression has been generated that we need power. It is wrongly perceived that we are averse to criticism. On the contrary, we have maintained that we welcome criticism. We have enormous powers under the RPA Act and the Constitution confers powers on us. We don’t need power. We are saying tell us where we have erred, and we will correct ourselves. If the allegations are well-founded, then we must accept and there are channels open for action to be taken. But allegations without any basis, or when you continue to shout from [the] rooftops, we cannot react like you as we are a constitutional body. We have only two options. Either we file a defamation suit. We don’t want to go down that route. We want parties to be responsible and not indulge in such a tirade. If parties are responsible, candidates will be responsible. If leaders are responsible, we don’t need that power of contempt.

What is your view on state funding of elections?

It has a certain background. Political parties can raise any amount, spend any amount. Candidates can raise any amount without telling us though there is a ceiling. That ceiling amount is meaningless on the ground as political parties can spend any amount. And most political parties spend on general propaganda. They give money to candidates either in cash or by other means. At [the] ground level, there is huge expenditure. Our assessment is that such expenditures are being managed by tainted money. It throws open the question of morality in polity, society, governance.

There is a discussion that all of this can be curbed if there is a state funding of elections. But simply introducing state funding will not solve the problem. If you don’t control the criminalisation of politics, if you don’t have political party reforms, political finance reforms, if you don’t introduce strong anti-bribery measures, strong anti-corruption measures... make bribery, paid news cognisable [offences]. Unless all these things are taken into consideration, state funding will make little sense as the taxpayers’ money will become another source for candidates to dip into.

What prevents the country from quick counting of votes on the final day?

When we are conducting elections to many States, the schedule drawn up is such that they have to be interspersed because of requirement of forces, their mobilisation, etc.

Therefore the political parties also demanded that the results of the first State that has gone to polls might have an impact on others, so please don’t undertake counting. That’s why the counting is delayed. On the day of counting, there is only a gap of a few hours.

What is your view on simultaneous elections in the States and at the Centre?

We stand committed that we can conduct it provided you agree to constitutional amendments and give us the law. Political parties have to arrive at a consensus and undertake constitutional amendments.

What are the challenges ahead for the commission?

The commission will remain engaged in inclusive elections. There are many sections in our society that are not part of our electoral democracy. Over three crore voters are yet to be enrolled; services’ voters continue to be a challenge; management of voters — there will be 100 crore [of them]; strict enforcement of [the] model code of conduct so that ruling parties are not able to violate this and misuse their resources and advantages. The biggest challenge currently and in the coming times is black money, tainted money and transparency in funding. In election time, we seized Rs. 100 crore in one constituency.

What are you going to do now after a hectic work schedule?

Take walks in Lodhi Gardens [in Delhi], maybe...

We are going to be the first country in the world to have 100% audit trail. We have designed an effective strategy to spread awareness among voters to use the VVPAT