Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora speaks to The Indian Express on the recent Assembly elections, EVMs and the road ahead for the poll panel. Edited excerpts:
What are your priorities for the Election Commission?
The Election Commission, the way it was created, has always had certain permanent priorities irrespective of the person at its helm. Like my predecessors, I will stick to the (EC’s) priorities as enunciated in the Constitution and the Preamble. We are expecting the report of the Committee that was tasked to suggest changes to Section 126 (dealing with 48 hours of election silence) under the Representation of the People Act. We would prefer that some of those recommendations are implemented before the Lok Sabha elections next year. I have also noticed that complaints – real or imagined — on electoral rolls and EVMs and VVPATs take centrestage. For this reason, I think training of (polling) personnel, especially at the cutting edge level, should be taken up in an even more focused manner. We will make sure future elections are conducted in same credible, impartial and ethical manner as it has happened in the past.
Should Section 126 also categorically apply to social media?
I don’t want to pre-empt what my officers will be suggesting in their report. Some representatives from different social media platforms have met me in the last one week. I have requested them to put their pen to paper and give concrete suggestions to the (Section 126) committee chairman. I have also asked officers in the Commission to study how other democracies are dealing with social media vis a vis elections.
In the recently concluded state elections, there were a few instances of indiscretion by poll officers while EVMs were in their custody. How does the EC plan to do avoid such incidents in future?
Firstly, I want to make an important distinction between tampering and malfunctioning (of a machine). The two words are being used interchangeably. Even a high-end automobile can malfunction within one week of its purchase. That doesn’t mean the vehicle should be banned in the country. Overall, across Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram, Telangan and Rajasthan, 0.52% of the Ballot Units, 0.53% of the Control Units and 2.22% of the VVPATs had to be replaced. These figures are miniscule and our effort is to ensure even that doesn’t happen.
As for tampering, let me assure you, that our machines are designed in a way that the moment somebody tries to fiddle with them, they just shut down. So nobody can misuse these machines.
There were some instances where the last mile transportation of EVMs and VVPATs made headlines recently. In our internal review we will think of ways to plug these problems, but these three to four instances cannot be quoted repeatedly to trash the entire system. We would not have wanted even these incidents to have happened, but when it did, we took the swiftest decision possible.
Why did declaration of results in MP take the longest out of the five states, even though the checks and procedure were the same for everyone?
We are not in the race of calling elections first. We want everything to be absolutely correct. When candidates and their agents ask questions and insist on settling their doubts, then delays are natural. In Madhya Pradesh, there were 13,000 additional polling stations this time compared to 2013. This increased the average number of counting rounds to 22, whereas states like Chhattisgarh and Rajashtan had 18 to 19 rounds. In about 250 cases out of 66,000 EVMs taken up for counting, the presiding officers had not deleted the votes cast during the mock poll in the morning. This meant that the results of these machines were correctly ascertained after counting of VVPAT slips. This added another hour to the counting process.
Do you feel the EVM stands vindicated after the results of the five state elections?
These machines have been used for years. Stakeholders have a right to criticise, but their criticism should not be slanted. The machine cannot be villified in case of result X and deemed okay in case of result Y. ECI would not like to be part of any political brinkmanship. I don’t say we should be left alone, but this machine cannot be labeled whatever suits a particular stakeholder at a given point of time. All kinds of dispensations have come and gone since we introduced EVMs. The voter of the country is the ultimate master of democracy. Why make an issue of a machine, which is only a technical aid? This is my appeal to everybody.
The Commision’s autonomy and independence has come under attack from political parties recently. As the new CEC, how would you like to address this?
My colleagues and I would do carry out our duties in conformity with the letter and spirit of the Constitution. The interactions with political parties that I have attended in the Commission headquarters and on our visit to the states have been very pleasant. I cannot account for what one says to the media after stepping out. You should ask them.
Questions are now being raised on the quality of the electoral roll. What happened in case of Telangana?
The premise that the electoral roll are impure is not correct. You can say there are some distortions and duplications. After an initial internal analysis we found that voter names deleted on account of shifting houses need to be examined more closely. The Commission is focused on improving the electoral roll. We are going to soon have a meeting with the Chief Electoral Officers of the five states (that went to polls recently) to find out what gaps need to be plugged. But, at the same time, we cannot go by anecdotal evidence. We need empirical evidence. As for Telangana, we are still receiving reports from the CEO.
Is there a proposal to amend the RP Act to make seeding of Aadhaar with EPIC compulsory? If yes, what is the purpose?
We’ll be sending a proposal (to this effect) to the ministry. It is to make the electoral purer.
There has been strong opposition to mandatory seeding of Aadhaar. Do you anticipate any backlash to this move?
The Honourable Supreme Court has already given a detailed judgement on this. The crux of that is that no entity can use Aadhaar unless backed by law. That’s what we are trying to do. If any individual or political party wants go to court on that, it’s their prerogative.
There have been allegations that the Commission’s earlier exercise of linking Aadhaar with voter card was not voluntary?
I’m not aware of such reports.
Can the EC do anything to prevent a Cambridge Analytica type of scandal in India?
I think a whole lot of us, especially in the metropolis, grossly underestimate the basic wisdom of what we keep on calling “common man”. The electors have their own mind and are much more savvy than what we give them credit for.
The deadline for NRC objections is drawing close? What happens to people who don’t find their names in the final NRC?
This is a matter being dealt by the Ministry of Home Affairs. I cannot give EC’s point of view till we have taken a considered view of the situation.
What is your view on the effect of electoral bonds on transparency in election funding?
We have already given our views to the ministry on this and that’s where things stand. The government has passed a law in the Parliament. Accounts are still to be given by all parties. We cannot be arrogating to ourselves the role of the Parliament.
Despite a Supreme Court order prohibiting candidates from soliciting votes on religious grounds, political parties, especially star campaigners, continue to do so as seen in the recently-concluded state polls. Should the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) or the RP Act be amended to deal with hate speeches?
The MCC was drafted with the consensus of the political parties. I can’t spell out the exact time frame, we can consult political parties to gauge if they want changes in the MCC. But there are clear provisions in various laws of the country to deal with this kind of situation.