Full text of the interview with outgoing Central Election Commissioner Dr Nasim Zaidi (You can read the edited excerpts here) :
How do you look back at your term as Chief Election Commissioner? Do you go back a satisfied man?
In the past two years, we have undertaken more than a 100 initiatives and I have a sufficient sense of satisfaction as I leave office.
I think I have touched all areas – whether its is the institutional set up in the Election Commission of India or refining of processes. We have brought in many advisors and experts, and also done a lot of IT infusion in the election management. All this does bring me a fair sense of satisfaction.
We delisted parties that have not contested elections. Another important change that has come about is that of declaration of sources of funds of spouses and candidates.
We have worked a lot on voter-centric activities from registration of voters to complaint redressal. We have tied up with Facebook to reach out to left out 18-year-olds who may not have been enrolled yet as voters and the next thing I am putting together as I leave, is to reach out to future voters- the 15 to 17-year-olds in schools. I have already written to the Human Resources Development minister and we are tying up with state governments to bring some changes in the curriculum. We want our 15-17 year olds to learn about citizenship, democracy and electoral democracy.
The EC under you has made several recommendations on electoral reforms- but the bulk of them are still lying with the government. What would you say about the responsiveness of the government?
Definitely, we would have been happier if at least some reforms had been rolled out. We have been pursuing these repeatedly. Though we have made some 50 proposals, 7-8 reform proposals are leading ones which will make impact and bring about further improvement in the integrity and credibility and fairness of elections. I would have been happier if these came through.
Broadly, these fall under three categories. One area relates to transparency of political finance- some changes have taken place. One or two are good but rest are not contributing to transparency. The second area where strong action is needed is against corrupt practices- like making bribery a cognisable offence, declaring paid news an offence and powers to countermand elections in case of widespread bribery. These three powers are sought by us a which unfortunately is also not seeing the light of the day.
Areas like NRI voting in which the law was to be amended, enabling 18-year-olds to be registered as voters when they attain that age and use of Totalisers- I did get a sense of encouragement several months ago, but we are yet to see the final result. I would have been happier if some more reforms had taken place.
The EC recently disqualified a Madhya Pradesh cabinet minister on account of paid news . How big a concern is paid news?
The phenomenon of paid news is clearly on the rise. We have detected hundreds of cases where paid news was reported, identified and determined and it is all through tainted money, but we are able to do little as it is not a criminal offence.
The candidate smiles through it all thinking nothing will come out of it. He is unaffected, merrily indulges in paid news, gives money under the table to whoever is publishing. That is why we say please make it a criminal activity. We do have the power to disqualify which we have used recently and we will use as and when such cases come before us. We do have few cases before us and we will decide on the basis of merit. So it is a huge phenomenon and I will advise all candidates not to indulge in any such thing and also appeal with certain actions of the media to help us fight this. I have also received lots of support from responsible media as well.
What about the difficulty of getting political parties on board for key electrical reforms?
It is very difficult to build consensus due to fears that some provisions may be misused and there may be a witch hunt or biased action. But sometimes you have to move things even without consensus and see the results – you can always change it. Sometimes you do not necessarily wait for consensus. For example- Paid news- why should it not be legislated upon?
Which were the most challenging of elections you conducted during your tenure?
The most difficult were two. One was Bihar because of its historical background. Earlier there used to be booth capturing, muscle men and considerable violence. Another, election that was equally tough was in West Bengal. This was due to heightened political competition amongst parties there with workers clashing and at places attempts being made to prevent voters. We managed elections in both states very well.
Learning from more difficult states, Commission made fool-proof arrangements for UP this year. We held polls there in 7 phases despite all the criticism as that was the need due to the size of the state. We also ensured close to 100 per cent deployment of security forces in most polling stations, strong deterrents against criminal elements and just like in West Bengal, we made many administrative changes at the police station level to ensure that proactive SHOs were posted there. All this helped conduct polls very smoothly. UP election, in fact, was most peaceful.
Would you say there may have been some kind of miscalculation in the timing of holding Kashmir by-election considering the MHA’s inputs on the situation on the ground?
There was no miscalculation. We consult state governments and undertake assessments with their help on law and order. We consulted with J&K government two times. Of course, they listed challenges but no where had they said that elections should not be conducted. They did say they wanted to do Panchayat elections first but our contention was that if they are prepared for panchayat elections, we can do Parliament elections too because it is actually the former contest that is more fierce.
As far as Home Ministry is concerned, the commission consults them only on availability of forces. If they give us any input, we do take it into account, but they also did not say that postpone the elections or don’t hold it. They also listed several challenges but we are meant to face those challenges. In J&K, elections have been conducted in far more challenging situations successfully so I don’t think it was a miscalculation.
When we saw on election day that things did not happen in the manner it was expected, we decided to postpone it. We did think of holding it again but the situation started deteriorating and we took a call to postpone it. Our task is to conduct elections and when we think the situation fit, we will do so.
There has also been a lot of criticism about the EC seeking contempt powers to act against those attacking it. Your comments?
We don’t mind healthy constructive criticism because we always consult and engage with stakeholders but in the recent four months, the spate of allegations was too much, unfounded and without any credible information. We wrote to all those who were raising questions to provide us with evidence and material information so we could launch investigation or lodge a FIR, but we got nothing. We cannot react violently or aggressively and are bound by our own limitation. We also cannot go to courts for defamation.
So we thought we should follow this route at least so that political parties and leaders behave responsibly. The idea is not to get unnecessary powers or to punish. If people were behaving responsibly, there would be no use ever of such powers. It is now for the lawmakers to decide.
How do you look back at the EVM controversy?
It was avoidable and should not have been raised. If there is a controversy backed by evidence, I would have welcomed it, but controversy for the sake of controversy is not a very healthy practice. Either provide us with information, tell us if there is anything wrong going on at the polling booth level and we will open an investigation, but raising issues unnecessarily without any basis wasn’t a good thing.
If they tell us that we have found such weaknesses or deficiencies or need to improve security, protection etc, we would have welcomed it. Instead of doing so, just casting aspersions on our integrity, is definitely not desirable or healthy.
The EC has expressed reservations about electoral bonds. Your comments.
What has been indicated in law so far doesn’t indicate much transparency. When the scheme comes, then we will react formally. Our Commission’s view iso far s that it definitely will reduce transparency. We have asked the Law ministry that the move to remove Electoral Bonds from Section29 (C) should be reviewed. It was sent 2-3 weeks back, hopefully they will consider. SIt is a question of trade-off: whether the people’s right to know is supreme or not. But political parties depend on funding from big donors- so some kind of way has to be found. Some people’s concern may be to give anonymity to big donors but we are here to work for the people. They want to know who has contributed to whom and how much amount- this should be disclosed.
What about EC’s readiness and need for simultaneous polls?
There is need for a national debate on the issue – that was the last recommendation of the Parliamentary Panel. There is need for debate and political consensus has to be built. There has to be readiness for a constitutional amendment. We can conduct it with certain challenges. As CEC, I have no say what should be system in the country. If political parties, lawmakers build consensus for simultaneous polls, my answer is that I will conduct it with total freedom and fairness. Going into its merits and demerits is not my job.
Your view on hate speeches/communally polarising speeches in the course of election campaigns?
This is a problem in more or less every election. The provisions of the model code of conduct are very clear and so is the EC – this is unacceptable and we have repeatedly been writing to political parties to ensure their senior leaders desist from making any such speeches and comments which can instigate people or vitiate the atmosphere. We act where we can, issues notices and even lodge FIRs. We appeal to all political parties to allow their better sense to prevail and refrain from such campaigns.