chief election commissioner sy quraishi
‘People facing criminal charges should be debarred from elections’
DR SY Quraishi assumed charge as the 17th Chief Election Commissioner of India on July 30, 2010. He had been Election Commissioner since June 30, 2006, and was already involved with the control, direction and superintendence of the conduct of elections to the offices of President and Vice-President of India, and the general election of 2009.
Born in 1947, Quraishi acquired a Masters degree from St Stephen’s College, New Delhi, before joining the IAS in 1971. His doctoral thesis was on the “Role of Communication and Social Marketing in Development of Women and Children”. As Director General, Doordarshan, he turned around the programming and finances of the organization through introduction of new approaches. As Secretary, Power and Non-Conventional Energy, Haryana, he negotiated a $600 million World Bank loan for reform and privatization of the power sector. The initiative was evaluated as one of the 10 best in the world by the World Bank Quality Assurance Team. He also served as Secretary, Irrigation, in Haryana. As Additional Secretary for the Ministries of Renewable Energy and Steel at the Centre, Quraishi piloted wideranging reforms. Of his books, Social Marketing for Social Change has broken new ground in the field of development communication. He is an avid musician in his leisure time.
interviewed by ANIL TYAGI
gfiles: Anna Hazare and his team have been saying that they will take up the issue of the right to recall or reject the elected representatives. What are your views?
SY Quraishi: You are referring to “Right to Reject”. Currently, there is no such right. Some people have been demanding for years that there should be an option in the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) called ‘‘None of the Above’’. Under Election Rule 49, we have the option to not vote for anybody. In the ballot paper days, we could put the blank ballot paper into the box.
Or people would stamp on all the symbols or all over the ballot paper or write “Sab chor hai”. All would be regarded as invalid votes. With the introduction of the EVM, anonymity has gone. If you go inside a polling booth, you have to press a button. It has a very loud beep. If you don’t press a button, everybody will know you have not voted. So people will try to intimidate you: “Go and vote for me.” There are 16 buttons and it has been suggested that the last one should be the “None of the Above” option. We have asked for an amendment to the Act to allow for this. The matter has gone to the Supreme Court.
gfiles: The criminalization of elections is a major concern. There is debate over what kind of criminals should be allowed to contest. What is your opinion?
SYQ: We strongly feel that people with very serious criminal charges pending against them should be debarred. On conviction, in any case there is disqualification. Conviction for a day will also lead to disqualification. The point is, if the conviction takes 20 or 30 years, in between the same guy continues to enjoy political power which he can abuse. So we have been proposing disqualification at least in heinous cases which carry rigorous punishment of five years or more, cases like rape, murder, dacoity and kidnapping. However, political parties say there is a possibility of false cases being forced by rivals. To guard against this, our proposition is to consider only those cases where a court of law has framed the charges. The case has to be registered at least six months before the election.
gfiles: How much money is spent in a general election, as per your official estimate?
SYQ: We have a rough estimate of Rs 1,200 crore for managing and conducting a general election that is spent through the States. If you are talking about expenditure by a candidate, that is different. There is a law that provides for a ceiling for the expenditure. It used to be Rs 10 lakh (Vidhan Sabha) and Rs 25 lakh (Lok Sabha) till last year. On our request to the Law Ministry, it was increased to Rs 16 lakh and Rs 40 lakh. At least inflation should be accounted for. The last ceiling was fixed in 1995-96.
‘We have heard about the EVM manipulations. It’s a good idea that
there should be transparency.’
gfiles: There are 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, and 5,000-6,000 candidates across the country. See the volume of money you’ve allowed. What’s the way out?
SYQ: Many people think even Rs 40 lakh is not a huge sum. But, in five States that went to the polls recently, they reported, on an average, 20-50% expenditure. They have not spent even the Rs 16 lakh allowed, the average expenditure comes to around Rs 8-9 lakh. I don’t know why they want to under-report, what the logic is and what benefit they get. In private conversation, they all say they spent Rs 2-5 crore. It has become competitive, a rich candidate can be defeated only by a richer candidate. This vicious circle has to end.
gfiles: Why don’t we have a system to track the record of criminals?
SYQ: We don’t have that information in our computers. Suppose you are a candidate come to file your nomination, you’ll bring an affidavit. Whether you are reporting your property truthfully or falsely, the returning officer is in no position to know. He cannot go to check and the decision he has to take is time bound. The nomination has to be accepted or rejected. So we put it in the public domain. If it is a false affidavit, it will attract legal action. The FIR and cases are filed in the court. We also pass it on to the CBDT (Central Board of Direct Taxes) for they can cross-check with their accounts. We also give a copy to the ADR (Association for Democratic Reforms).
‘We have warned the political parties that now we have rules and guidelines and we
will come down on them heavily.’
will come down on them heavily.’
gfiles: Before sending your election reform proposals to the government, do you invite the public’s and political parties’ views?
SYQ: Yes, we hold a meeting with the parties on all the major issues. The last meeting we had was on money power two years ago. Every party expresses concern about it. They feel that they’ve been forced into using money because of others. We also wanted to discuss criminalization, and the debate over the EVMs. Earlier, we had called a meeting to discuss a new gadget which we developed – called a totaliser – a device to mix the votes drawn from different machines. So that nobody will know which village voted for whom otherwise they punish them for five years.
In the ballot paper days, votes from 10 boxes were mixed. You never knew the voting pattern of a particular area. With the EVMs, mixing is not possible. So we asked our company to develop the totaliser. By connecting machines, the totaliser aggregates all the votes and the total is shown to the people present.
gfiles: People are also questioning the EVMs’ authenticity, like whether they have been tampered with.
SYQ: No, they have not said it has been tampered with. They want to make it absolutely transparent and tamper-proof and there should be a voter-verifiable paper trail (VVPT). It means that when you press a button, the vote will go into the machine so the voter can’t see it. At the all-party meeting, except one or two, they all said they wanted to go back to the ballot paper system. We have heard about the EVM manipulations. There should be transparency, it’s a good idea. We referred the concerns and the issue of feasibility of VVPT to our independent committee of experts. We have enough safeguards against these things. Two PSUs, BEL and ECIL, manufactured the EVMs. One is under the Defence Ministry, the other under the Atomic Energy Ministry. Nobody knows which machine goes to which State /district/polling booth. We do mock polls also and show the results then and there.
‘Electioneering has become competitive. A rich candidate can be defeated only by a
richer one. This vicious circle has to end.’
richer one. This vicious circle has to end.’
gfiles: Should elections be state-funded?
SYQ: State funding has been mentioned in the context of money power. It has been suggested that if the state funds elections, then money power will disappear. I think it’s a very fallacious argument. If it was that simple, it would have been done 14 years ago. It is not the white money but the black money that affects elections. We have a ceiling of Rs 16 lakh for Assembly elections. We can do state funding, but what will happen to that Rs 2 crore that is distributed in envelopes?
gfiles: As CEC, will you be able to stop black money?
SYQ: Our enforcement makes us very unpopular. We have warned the political parties that now we have rules and guidelines and we will come down on them heavily. We have been accused of causing an emergency, accused of excesses, of harassment. All we’ve been doing is implementing the law. Black money can be stopped if the political parties themselves enforce discipline and follow a model code of conduct. We have now understood how it works, the machinery we have set up has to be strengthened further. We have to come down heavily, raid hotels, farmhouses, check them at the airports, railway stations, bus terminuses.
The third measure is voter education. That is the ultimate answer. When we went to Tamil Nadu, every political party, including the ruling party, expressed concern about the money power problem. The next day, we were in Thiruvananthapuram. Members of a Kerala political party came to see us. We asked them about the problem. They said there was no such problem. We asked why. They said that the Kerala voter is very enlightened and very savvy. They go by whatever decision they’ve taken, money makes no difference to them. So no party wastes money. Now that is a very healthy situation. We tried it in Tamil Nadu and, as a result of civil society’s awareness, all the money received was reported. People cooperated by informing us that saris and dhotis had been distributed. They said, “Come and catch them,” and we did. I was getting 300 SMSes and e-mails on my BlackBerry every day.
gfiles: Many political parties are registered only to be used for hawala because there are no checks.
SYQ: You are right. The number of political parties has gone up to about 1,300. That was half an hour ago. It must have increased in the last half-hour. In 2003, donations to political parties were exempted from tax for both the donor and the recipient, so people are trying to benefit. A couple of years ago, we checked on a few parties. In one case, we found that they had incurred expenditure of Rs 3 crore. So we wanted to see on what account. We found that they had bought jewellery and shares. A TV channel heard about it, and took a list of the registered parties (about 100) and went to the addresses. Some were nameplate parties and some were bogus. Unfortunately, we don’t have the power to deregister them which is a lacuna in the law. The Supreme Court has said the power to register does not necessarily bring in the power to deregister, it has to be given separately and specifically. We have asked the government to bring in this amendment.
gfiles: In the past few years, the EC has been perceived as being more proactive and cracking the whip harder. Has this been a deliberate strategy?
SYQ: The election system has a lot of credibility because the EC has been fiercely independent, with no government interference, and has enormous power. It is probably the most powerful election commission in the world although some people would like to give more power to us. In certain cases we are considered toothless. We don’t have the power to prevent a criminal from contesting because that is a matter of disqualification of a candidate and it has to be done by law, it is not in our hands. India’s electoral system has kept democracy on the rails, the changeover of power is always smooth and bloodless. People lose by one vote and accept the verdict with humility and grace. In this country the losing PM or CM offers the chair to the successor with folded hands. These are things we should not forget. It has become fashionable to condemn the whole system and all politicians. Painting all politicians black and calling them corrupt is very dangerous. You can’t have democracy without politicians. All politicians are not corrupt, some are very honest.
gfiles: What major change should come in to improve elections?
SYQ: The most critical reforms are debarring criminals and checking money power. These two complex issues have to be handled because everyone is sick of them. A solution has to be found because the situation can’t go on like this. g