In the midst of Assembly Elections in key states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal and speculation about imminent change, Zeenews.com’s Swati Chaturvedi spoke to Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi on her chat show Kahiye Janab.
Here are the excerpts:
Swati: You are the vanguard of the entire electoral system. Many believe that, in the ongoing elections, it’s only you who is standing in between the DMK and money. WikiLeaks had established that in the last elections, DMK gave Rs 5,000 each to every voter. This time, they are accusing you (of interfering).
Quraishi: It’s wrong to say that we are standing between any party and victory, or that we are targeting any single party. We only enforce rules and electoral guidelines uniformly to ensure a level-playing field for everyone. Every ruling party has power and the entire government machinery at its disposal and there’s a general tendency to misuse it. So normally the ruling party is always unhappy with us and the opposition parties have expectations from us. However, when the roles get reversed the same parties criticise us.
Swati: DMK is also known as Delhi Money for Karunanidhi. The DMK chief’s son, M.K. Stalin and South Indian actress and party member Khushboo have attacked you for running a campaign in favour of (AIADMK chief) Jayalalithaa.
Quraishi: People continue to accuse us but we can’t work according to the wishes of others. We cannot let wrongdoings to go on.
Swati: In these elections there have been two striking things so far. One is the voter turnout, which was very high. The other is the case of Trinamool Congress MP KD Singh, who is a respected businessman from Haryana. He was stopped at the airport with Rs 59 lakhs but was let off by the customs. The EC then transferred the custom officials involved in the case. Now, money power was there to be seen and voters were being bribed. What do you have to say after looking at the bigger picture?
Quraishi: You don’t have to be well-built to be tough. To be tough is our constitutional responsibility as well as mandate. It is because of this, the entire nation trusts the Election Commission. The entire world looks up to Indian democracy because the EC here is fair and transparent.
Swati: But how could the customs let off KD Singh with money?
Quraishi: The incident was a cause of concern. He was going to a poll-bound state on a private plane with some amount of cash. When it was found, the customs department cross-checked with a Chandigarh bank from where the amount was withdrawn. After verifying the source, the customs officials let off the MP. But we told them that we are not concerned about the source of money, but the end use of it. We should ensure that the money is not used for bribing voters. According to customs officials, it was meant to buy a property; the deal for which could not go through and it was being brought back to be deposited in a bank. Now the question arises, why was the money allowed to be brought back? We are investigating the matter further.
Swati: It is generally said that there is a committed bureaucracy in West Bengal; also that there’s a ‘Rig’ Veda in the Communist bastion. How will you tackle that and the bureaucracy in West Bengal or in any other poll-bound state?
Quraishi: Talking about committed bureaucracy, the entire election process in India is implemented by the same bureaucracy which ensures error-free conduct of polls. They are competent and capable and they don’t have any political pressure as they work directly under us. It is because of so much political pressure that they are unable to work freely and fairly. Also, the police force of one state works efficiently in other states because they don’t know anybody there.
Swati: Free and fair elections changed the face of Jammu and Kashmir. How will you tackle ‘Rig’ Veda in West Bengal?
Quraishi: I would like to say that rigging by force is history. There are so many checks and balances now. Even if a petty complaint is filed, we order re-polling. This has shown to miscreants that there’s no point in using force. There have been instances when we have ordered re-polling even after a re-poll was done. Now, we face two problems. One is money power. To tackle that, we have set up an expenditure monitoring division to keep a watch on poll expenditure. We also release the analysis publicly for people to see. The Supreme Court has also helped us by asking candidates to file an affidavit about their financial and criminal background, so that the electorate casts their votes after due diligence.
Swati: Every politician starts his/her parliamentary career by lying to you about his/her poll expenditure. Now, those who believe in democracy as well as concerned citizens think what kind of hypocrisy is this? What kind of a democracy is this where to fight elections you need, say Rs 6 crores?
Quraishi: You are right. This lie is at the root of all problems. Politicians too tell us in private that it is impossible to conduct campaign in a budget of Rs 10-16 lakh. The answer to that is finding a rational limit. Some say Rs 16 lakh is a decent limit; some are of the opinion that it should be less so that a poor man can also contest elections. While there are some who say there should be no limit. We have to break the vicious circle of competition wherein one party tries to match the other, whether in terms of poll expenditure or fielding of a candidate with criminal background. But there are some parties, like the Left, which spend in a limit and still go on to win.
Swati: Is state funding a solution? Or, say setting up a common dais where every party’s candidate comes and campaigns, or gets same broadcast time. People believe that this corruption at the entry level turns into 2G or CWG scam later on in a politician’s life.
Quraishi: You are right. But at present, no level-playing field exists. Only recognized parties get air time on Doordarshan. Independents stand no chance. To accommodate all candidates is also not possible. Meghalaya is an interesting case. There, 40-50 Church organizations have come together and formed a code wherein candidates refrain from door to door campaign and put across their election message, say from street corners. It is in door to door campaign that money, liquor etc are distributed among the voters. We have suggested this system as part of our electoral reforms.
Swati: Do you think politicians want reforms? People believe democracy here has become a closed shop, a dynastic one. A recent survey highlighted the same.
Quraishi: I would not like to say much about that. People should decide what kind of representative they want. People should think before they vote.
Swati: But this is not happening?
Quraishi: For that , voter education holds the key. We have set up a voter education division to achieve that and have also taken measures to improve voter education and behaviour. We used (Indian cricket team captain) Mahendra Singh Dhoni as a brand ambassador in Jharkhand and Bihar, which helped in improving the voter turnout there. Bihar alone recorded a jump of about 16-20% in voter turnout. Another brand ambassador, folk singer Shradha Sinha helped bring in women voters.
Swati: Anna Hazare said if he contests election he would lose his deposit, because he would not be able to distribute money and liquor. Are you concerned about this image of politicians?
Quraishi: Yes, we are concerned, but people are still sending such representatives despite the bad image. So voter education is required. As Anna Hazare highlighted, corruption is a major issue in India. It is an unfortunate situation that Anna Hazare was forced to sit on fast unto death. But we believe our electoral reforms proposal holds the key as they are more deep-rooted. Lokpal provisions will ensure the corrupt are brought to book. But the question is why a corrupt person allowed into the system in the first place? He should be debarred from contesting the election. We had called a meeting of all political parties last October where they rejected all our proposals.
Swati: This belief that “all politicians are corrupt” is not healthy for the Indian democracy of which we all are proud of.
Quraishi: You are right. This thought is dangerous for the democracy because there is no democracy without politicians. More than 60 years after independence, we are on the verge of becoming a superpower, compared to our neighbours. This is because of our political leadership only. We should not paint all black but rather eliminate the black sheep.
Swati: In the context of CVC PJ Thomas’ case, allegations have also been leveled against past CECs. Why does the government again and again appoint dubious persons to such important posts?
Quraishi: Selection should be done with due diligence because if institutional integrity is lost, our democracy will go off track and derail.
Swati: Who has been the biggest villain so far in these elections?
Quraishi: (Smiles) If you ask people, they will say it was me.
Adaptation: Deepak Nagpal