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‘Election Commission has always been neutral and impartial’: CEC Sushil Chandra

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Fresh off assembly elections in five regions amid a spurt in Covid-19 cases, India’s chief election commissioner Sushil Chandra spoke to Smriti Kak Ramachandran about conducting polls in the midst of a pandemic, the challenges in implementing protocols, the West Bengal and Madras high court controversies, and future electoral reforms. Edited excerpts:

What are the key learnings from elections conducted during the pandemic?

Whenever we conduct elections, we take inputs from all stakeholders. We speak to all the political parties; take inputs from the ministry of home affairs, and health ministry, and from the states. On that basis, we decide how the election will be conducted. Last year, before the Bihar election, the most important thing for us was how to conduct the elections in the middle of the pandemic. But we issued strict guidelines and reduced the people per polling station from 1,500 to 1,000 for social distancing. About 30,000 polling stations were added. We issued guidelines for political rallies. Ultimately, the election was held very successfully… and the voter turnout was also more than the previous polls.

This gave us confidence that we could deliver and hold election in four states and one Union territory. In spite of the fact that in the month of January-February, when the pandemic was receding, we decided against lowering the guard as far as the guidelines are concerned. We followed strict guidelines whether it was about presence of people in polling stations or increasing the stations; about 80,000 new polling booths were added.

In light of Covid, do you see drastic changes in the way elections will be held in the future?

In these elections, if you look at the polling percentage, West Bengal recorded 82%, Assam 83%, and Tamil Nadu 74%. It shows a system of establishing polling stations and a conducive atmosphere encouraging voters to participate in the polling process works. That is the ultimate aim of the election commission — that no voter should be left behind… Our personnel went to homes of the elderly to ensure that they could cast a vote; as a result, the total number of postal ballots went up from 2.9 lakh in 2016 to 13.6 lakh in 2021. Going forward, we will have meetings with the CEOs (chief electoral officers) of the states that went to the polls to understand what difficulties they faced, and what can be done for future elections. We will also consult all political parties to understand how campaigns can be held in the future…

When the assembly polls were scheduled, the second wave had not set in. But subsequently it became clear that numbers were going up. Did the commission not consider deferring polls?

It is the constitutional mandate of the ECI to conduct elections before the tenure of the assembly ends. We are happy to have been able to conduct elections, and are thankful to the voters, the state police, the central forces, and the 130,000 election functionaries… Some of them overcame personal tragedies, but chose not to go on leave — that is the commitment of the election commission. We had consultations with states and disaster management authorities, and none of them suggested there was a need for deferring elections.

But there was little adherence to the guidelines on the ground. There was no crowd control at rallies.

The election commission was always ahead of the curve. During the pandemic, it is the duty of SDMA to take action. We wrote to them continuously… We also took steps not to conduct bigger rallies, and to maintain social distancing. Ultimately, it is a decision SDMAs need to take. By the time polling concluded on April 6, the second wave was not visible to this extent. In West Bengal, we put restrictive measures in place since April 16. During these elections, neither did the SDMA issue any additional instructions on lockdown, nor did it inform EC about the need for any specific curbs. On no occasion did we get any feedback in this regard…

Did you flag any concerns with them and the state administration?

We were continuously in touch with the chief secretary, and said strict action should be taken against violators. On April 16, we again issued a letter to all rally organisers that it is their personal responsibility to issue masks and ensure safety of the public. On April 22, we had an interaction with political parties where we told them that you are responsible and you will have to take the guidelines seriously. We showed anguish also and said no padyatra, no cycle rally or a big rally will be permissible. During the last three phases in Bengal, we increased the silent period from 48 hours to 72 hours. We communicated it to the state authorities and the chief secretaries to book people; to cancel rallies if they are not complying with the rules; but ultimately it is their role. The EC can issue the direction and tell them and that they should take action, but ECI cannot take on the role of SDMA. They are responsible for taking action on the ground. And at no stage did they tell us that there is any surge in the pandemic. If at any stage SDMA has not taken a proactive role for controlling this, then EC cannot be held responsible.

What was the opposition to clubbing the last phases in WB, where the elections happened in eight phases, since it was legally tenable?

There is a lot of preparation that is done much in advance. When the demand came, we had to consider the implications of what would happen if we clubbed elections. It would have been logistically difficult; there would be problems in transporting EVMs and the central armed forces…

The Madras high court was scathing in its observations that ECI was responsible for allowing rallies with little or no Covid protocol and that its officials should probably be booked for murder.

The Supreme Court ultimately has very clearly said that the [HC] remarks are very harsh and the metaphor inappropriate.

EC has been in the midst of a controversy after election commissioner Rajiv Kumar sought to file a separate affidavit with the Madras HC on the panel’s role in conducting polls during the second wave, but it was later not filed. The EC also suggested a gag order on the media on reporting court observations.

There is no controversy at all. As for the media gag, the aim was only to expunge the off-the-cuff remarks of the high court. A media gag was never an intention, and we have clarified it. We have high regard for the media.

The Opposition, particularly in Bengal, has alleged that EC follows the cues of the Union government. The Trinamool Congress called it an “extension” of the BJP.

We strongly refute these allegations. The election commission has always been neutral and impartial. It is a narrative, but the EC has been impartial.

There is a bunch of suggestions from the EC pending with the law ministry for bringing about reforms. What is the status of these suggestions?

Reforms are a continuous an ongoing process. We have proposed an amendment to section 40 (b) of the Representation of People Act that instead of having to wait for an entire year to enrol as voters, those who turn 18 can be enrolled the same year. We can carry out the enrolment three or four times a year.

The second proposal is to link Aadhar with the electoral rolls for ensuring no duplication in the rolls. This will also make is easier for people to transfer their votes when they shift to a new place. This will also require an amendment to the law. We have also proposed that paid news should be a corrupt practice.

The use of money in polls is a worrying trend. Some have even argued that funding of political parties is still not transparent.

The EC is very concerned about this, and during these elections, we decided that we want an inducement-free election. We appointed five special expenditure observers who are retired from the income tax department. More than 1,000 crore of cash, liquor, and narcotics were seized, which is 4.5 times higher than the previous elections and this was possible because of the vigil by these officers. We have also set up a committee headed by Harish Kumar, an ex-IRS official who will submit a report on how we can further look at the expenditure limits who these can be controlled and monitored in a scientific manner. There is a demand from political parties to increase the limit; all this will be decided by the committee.

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