Outgoing CEC on EVM tampering controversy: ‘It was avoidable and should not have been raised’

The Chief Election Commissioner, Dr. Nasim Zaidi holding a press conference in January 2017. Source: PIB

The outgoing Chief Election Commissioner says he would have liked to see more electoral reform before he left.

ANUBHUTI VISHNOI

Days before he demits the top office at Nirvachan Sadan, Chief Election Commissioner, Dr Nasim Zaidi in an interview wth ThePrint spoke of the dangers of paid news, the government moving slowly on electoral reforms and his views on the electoral bond scheme.

Edited Excerpts (you can read the full text of the interview 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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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 consulted with J&K government two times. Of course, they listed challenges but no where had they said that elections should not be conducted.

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.

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 th1ink the situation fit, we will do so.

The Chief Election Commissioner, Dr. Nasim Zaidi delivering a
speech in November 2016.

There has also been a lot of criticism about the EC seeking contempt powers to act against those attacking it. Your comments?

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.

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.

The EC has expressed reservations about electoral bonds. Your comments.

What has been indicated in the law so far doesn’t indicate much transparency. When the scheme comes, then we will react formally. Our Commission’s view so far is that it definitely will reduce transparency. We have asked the law ministry that the move to remove Electoral Bonds from Section 29 (C) should be reviewed. It was sent 2-3 weeks back , hopefully they will consider it.

It 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.

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