OPINION

‘Simultaneous polls can be done, but all parties have to agree’

The Chief Election Commissioner on proxy voting for NRIs, the fake news challenge, electoral bonds, and why EVMs are the best option

In the Monsoon session, the Lok Sabha passed a Bill that allows ‘proxy voting’ to non-resident Indians (NRIs). Is it going to be a game changer? Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat talks about the genesis of the idea, shares his concerns about the “opacity” that exists in political funding, and why the demand to return to the paper ballot is illogical. Excerpts:

The Congress has alleged that BJP president Amit Shah made no mention of his “liabilities” in his Rajya Sabha election affidavit. What is the Election Commission (EC)’s view?

The EC is seized of the matter. We will examine it and take necessary action. However, according to provisions of the law, anyone can file cases in such matters without approaching the EC. An FIR can be filed in the court or with the police if they are satisfied that they have sufficient proof.

The Lok Sabha has passed a Bill that allows ‘proxy voting’ for NRIs. Is this possible for voters in India?

This proxy is to encourage NRIs to register and vote. We have about three crore people of Indian origin settled abroad. Half of them are Indian citizens, nearly 10% may be voters. But the total number of NRIs registered in our electoral rolls is less than 25,000. It is very low. Why? Because they have to come here to vote. Who will spend that much money? They can now register at the address which is in their passport. The EC had suggested two options: either give them [NRIs] the authority to appoint proxies or have postal ballot. In Karnataka, we found that our embassy voters voted after registering online. So, we had suggested two options and the government has accepted proxy.

Say, someone in India is in hospital and can’t come to vote. Can this facility be extended to him?

For someone in a hospital, we are making all efforts to facilitate [the process]. We set up auxiliary voting stations. If there is a sizeable number — say, 200-300 voters in a hospital — we set up an auxiliary voting station in the same building. But if we provide proxy in India, [given] the abuse of money, this may become a scandal. It can be abused by parties or candidates to buy votes.

Earlier there was paid news. Now you have fake news that is shaping voting preferences. How are you dealing with this?

This is a major emerging challenge. In terms of paid news, our system has been able to ensure that whenever cases come to us and notices are issued, in 99.9% of the cases they [the candidates] accept that this may have been paid for, either in cash or kind, and agree that this expenditure may be added to their expenditure account.

But fake news is a different cup of tea. Now, you not only have to handle social media accounts but even print media. Even for our VVPAT [Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail] failure, many print media outlets said that EVMs that had never failed in 20 years failed in such a large number. It was fake news because EVMs never failed, VVPATs did. Our Section 126 [of the Representation of the People Act] Review Committee has engaged with Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to tell them what exactly is required of them during the conduct of elections — from the day of announcement of polls to the declaration of results, and in the last two days before the conclusion of polls. I am happy to tell you that all of them have agreed to follow a discipline during the poll period as well as for those 48 hours. Even the Facebook regional head has agreed to have pre-certified electronic advertisements. And for the last 48 hours, everyone affecting the election, they say, will be removed from the platform. Every advertisement will be flagged with the cost paid for it, so that our observers can include the expenditure on that advertisement.

We understand that you are in talks with Google and you have set up a monitoring cell.

Yes, we have set up a social media monitoring hub. Our committee is also meeting Google in this regard.

The Kairana and Gondiya-Bhandara bypolls saw a lot of complaints regarding the malfunctioning of VVPATs — that the machines heated up in summer. Given that the general elections will likely take place during summer, how serious is the problem?

We have done a lot of analysis and our technical experts committee, which includes professors from IIT Delhi, Mumbai and Bhilai, found that light affects the contrast and leads to malfunctions. So they have suggested a hood at the place from where the slip appears, so that light gets scattered. Second, there is a deplete sensor that malfunctions because of our logo on the paper. When the logo appears, it sends out a signal that paper is not there. Even humidity affects the paper — as it is thermal paper, it absorbs the moisture and becomes heavy and damp. Then the motor can’t move the spool easily. That has also been resolved by using separate paper but this will be required only in 8-9% of the polling stations, like coastal areas and the Northeast where the humidity is high. Then there was also an issue with the length sensor. So, all these changes have been made and VVPAT manufacturing got a little delayed. Instead of September 30, VVPAT delivery will start taking place by November 15. All the EVMs will be delivered by September-end. For all four poll-going States — Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Mizoram — the requirements have been met 100%.

The Opposition parties, especially the Congress, have been talking about reverting to paper ballot. They say many advanced countries in Europe and elsewhere have gone back to it. Is it feasible in India?

It is not a question of feasibility. It’s a question of going back to the bullock cart age. There should be no reason to think that as technology advances, we should be moving backwards. It is not correct to say that Europe has gone back. Our status paper lists out why they couldn’t stick to this technology. They [Europe] couldn’t devise an EVM which is standalone, which doesn’t have connectivity with WiFi or Internet. All these devices could be tampered with. Our machine is just like a calculator; it is not even connected to a power supply unit. EVMs have addressed so many issues, like invalid votes and booth capturing. If you have any doubts which can be substantiated, the EC has to ensure that every single doubt must be squarely addressed. And in case we fail, we are open to anything.

Ahead of the 2019 polls, when the EC starts updating the electoral rolls in Assam, will the National Register of Citizens (NRC) be a factor? Will you debar people whose names don’t figure in the NRC (expected to be completed by January 2019) from voting?

First of all, even the reasons for non-inclusion of names in the NRC are yet to be intimated. The time frame for intimation is end of August. Then the period for claims and objections will be provided after August 30. If lakhs of claims and objections come up, it will be difficult for any authority to dispose these of in three or four months. We have a mandate to deliver the final electoral roll by January 4, 2019. The process has already begun. The draft electoral roll will be published on September 1. I don’t foresee the final NRC to be published by then [Jan. 4]. But even if the authorities complete the final NRC, anybody whose name comes in the NRC can simply give a copy. If somebody’s name doesn’t, she will get an opportunity to prove her citizenship before an ERO [Electoral Registration Officer]. If the ERO is satisfied, the name can be included.

Transparency in political funding has been a major issue. What is the EC’s view on electoral bonds?

As soon as the Finance Bill, 2017 was passed by Parliament, the EC discussed this new scheme for campaign financing. We decided to convey our worries to the Law Ministry: mainly the opacity regarding who purchased the bond, who gave to it whom, what is the source of funds. All these not being disclosed to the electorate is not healthy for democracy.

Secondly, there were some amendments to the Company Law. Earlier, the provision was that only companies whose last three years were in profit could contribute up to 7.5%. Now this has been done away with. So, even if the company is dying, it can donate and evaporate from the scene. That is dangerous. Some shell companies may be created for siphoning off money from anywhere. All these concerns were conveyed to the Ministry. The EC was told that only the Bill had been passed, that the scheme had not been floated, and so it was premature to raise the red flag. So, the EC waited for it. Since January, electoral bonds have been issued three times and now we are going to get contribution reports from political parties. We will be able to communicate our concerns, if any, backed by data within a month or so.

The EC’s Model Code of Conduct (MCC) comes into effect only after a poll schedule is announced. Many believe that the government of the day always has an unfair advantage. Welfare schemes are usually named after the Chief Minister or the Prime Minister, whose photos figure prominently in these schemes. Has the EC considered this aspect?

The EC feels that through election reforms, the whole of governance cannot be reformed. It’s a very small part of that exercise, but whatever influences a voter’s mind at the time of elections, we take care of that. Like in Punjab, we found that ration cards carried photographs of the political executive. The EC ensured that well before the announcement of elections, three months’ ration was distributed and then the ration cards were made redundant. But over four years of governance, a democratically elected government can do whatever it wants. In case there is any objection, people can challenge it through a public interest litigation.

The EC promptly gets cases registered against those who make hate speeches. But many believe that strong punitive action is not taken against the offenders as a follow-up. Should the EC have more powers?

Our system is quite robust. All legal provisions exist for substantive offences to be registered in appropriate cases. In case of regular hate speeches by someone that tend to influence the voters, there are MCC provisions to censure the politician. If they don’t relent, the EC debars them from campaigning, like Azam Khan and Amit Shah were debarred. Our election process is protected from interference under Article 329 of the Constitution. We have not given statutory backing to the MCC, but it is agreed upon by all political parties that they will submit to the Code. If they violate it, the EC can derecognise you, freeze your symbol.

What is your view on simultaneous polls?

Simultaneous polls can be done, but all political parties have to agree to it.

The question of going back to the paper ballot isn’t one of feasibility, it’s a question of going back to the bullock cart age.

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