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The CEC On Electoral Reforms

In an exclusive interview, J.M. Lyngdoh lashes out at "a few mad people who keep talking" of early elections in Gujarat.

The CEC On Electoral Reforms
Jitender Gupta
The CEC On Electoral Reforms
The CEC has stirred a hornet’s nest by notifying that politicians will have to declare criminal records, if any, along with their assets and educational qualifications while filing their nominations. He was merely implementing a Supreme Court directive, but the political class has taken umbrage. Lyngdoh, flanked by T.S. Krishnamurthy and B.B. Tandon (the other two election commissioners), speaks on the controversy and a range of other issues in an exclusive interview to Murali Krishnan. Excerpts:

Why do you think the political class as a whole has rejected the EC’s latest notification asking politicians to file affidavits before returning officers (ROs)?
It’s an affidavit which politicians are required to fill up. As someone suggested, if you answer all those questions you could end up throwing up a new crop of politicians every time.

Many politicians say there are "political" cases and criminal ones. How will an RO make the distinction?
The law doesn’t talk of political cases. It does not make that distinction. There is a possibility of some cases being cooked up and there may be ground for some apprehension on this count. But that would be the exception rather than the rule. Nobody can be denied his or her candidature, but if the information is true then that’s good reason for cancelling the candidature.

Every time there’s a move to clean up the electoral process, politicians are the first to object. Can there ever be a consensus ?
Some time or the other, we need a fresh opinion. A new look is necessary and that is what everybody hopes for. Some time or the other, the monolith will crack.

If this move by the EC is translated into action, how far will it clean up the system?
There are some people who possibly would, and quite happily and unashamedly, perform a striptease. There are others who might feel bad about it and get out of the contention altogether. Basically, this is a striptease act where you take off everything and are entirely exposed.

If the guidelines were accepted, would it have a salutary effect?

Let me put it this way. If you expose something, somebody is going to take it up. And when you answer them, then somebody is going to take up something else. There is no end to it. It is like being bitten by mosquitoes.

Do you think it’s within the EC’s jurisdiction to implement the Supreme Court directive?
Absolutely. The Supreme Court order says very clearly that filing the affidavit is a necessary part of the nomination process. That is the exact wording. If the EC did not have the jurisdiction, political parties could have taken us to court. Nobody has gone to court challenging our order. And the government also had plenty of opportunity to go to the court. It didn’t.

Many politicians see the EC’s directive as an attempt to usurp Parliament’s powers. They say the guidelines will "create roadblocks". Can you comment?
The legislation part has already been answered by the court. Since Parliament is now legislating, we, therefore, fill the vacuum for the time being. But then Parliament can’t correct things after it legislates. So, they (the court) also included us, as we have to implement the existing laws.

What is the process which will be set into motion once a candidate declares his income, educational qualification and cases against him? Will he be debarred on account of any of these factors?
The court order clearly says the affidavit is meant for the education of the public. It’s the right to information which is at stake here. Everyone knows that one can be debarred only if one has been convicted under conditions set out by Section 8 of the Representation of People’s Act. That doesn’t change and that hasn’t changed. It’s not only disclosure by the candidates which is at stake here, the public needs to make an informed choice.

Politicians are wary of disclosing their source of funds. What if they give false information?
It has been spelt out in the order. There are two aspects to this. First is the filing of the affidavit with all the details. Non-filing results in the rejection of the nomination. Then, suppose there is information given by a candidate which is manifestly wrong and which can be detected by the RO, he will take a decision. If he can’t and depends on an opposing candidate who brings out a convincing document, then the RO is within his right to reject the nomination. After that, the remedy for a candidate whose nomination is rejected lies in an election petition after the poll.

Should the timeframe be increased for ROs to scrutinise nomination papers? Right now, this is done in a single day.
That is the law. It’s not the intention of the RO to examine each disclosure and report his findings. The idea behind the affidavit is that the candidate himself makes a voluntary disclosure which is known to the public. In essence, a candidate’s statement is accepted per se unless challenged on other grounds. And here too, we have stated what points can be verified by the RO.

Can a candidate appeal against the RO’s order?
If the nomination is wrongly rejected then the recourse is the election petition. But that is after the election.

What will be the EC’s next move if Parliament frames its own set of electoral reforms?
(Laughs) It depends. We have to see the legislation and what they say. It’s almost obvious from newspaper reports that persons who have been elected as members of a House will be asked to declare, whereas the other candidates will not. That doesn’t help. It goes against the substance and spirit of the Supreme Court order which requires people to know about all the candidates. But let me tell you that the EC’s order stands.

Will the EC move court if any of its present guidelines are diluted by the proposed legislation?
Unless we know what the legislation is, how can we comment? It is not proper for us to say anything on a hypothetical situation. We can’t make any judgement at this stage.

Will the EC be consulted on the proposed Bill?
This question shouldn’t be directed at us. But that’s unlikely.

Do you think you should be consulted?
All I will say is that if all political parties have good intentions vis-a-vis the public, that will be advisable.

Why is the declaration of the educational qualifications of a politician necessary? Many fear that this will be publicised in the media by rivals?
Is that an important issue to get worried about? The Supreme Court has said this information is to be made available to the voting public so that it can make an informed choice. In this connection, it has included educational qualifications. Where four candidates are in the fray, it’s important for the voter to know the qualifications of each one of them. Some countries like Singapore make minimum qualifications necessary for contesting elections and entering public life. We are making a beginning in informing the public.

What is your assessment of the ground situation in j&k after your visit?
One can’t make a definite assessment. We’ve worked with sincerity and tried to see that things are in order. But you never know when matters can go wrong.

Will the government do a rethink on allowing independent observers for the election?
It’s not the government’s decision. Neither the Centre nor the state government has anything to do with the election dates, running of the election or calling in observers or whatever. The government, in fact, ought not to be saying we are going to have a good and clean election. That’s none of their business. It’s our job.

But observers only want to watch the election. They don’t want the official machinery backing them.
Crudely put, there’s an assumption that the native will be deterred by the white man if he plans to do something wrong. That principle doesn’t work in India. People will do anything they want to do. Our priority will be to allow the media, and the national and the international corps, free access. If it’s a question of having a lot of eyes, diplomats can travel as they normally do. As for the animal called observer, I’ve said clearly they won’t be accorded the status of observer. People from the Commonwealth group, like Britain, South Africa, Canada and Australia, who have the best electoral systems, can come. We won’t invite them. They can come in their individual capacity. If it is qualitative watching they want, they can have it.

Do you think given the current situation, free and fair elections can be held in Gujarat? Chief minister Narendra Modi has been stating that the conditions are conducive.
The international media is always equating the situation in Kashmir with Gujarat. When they ask you about Kashmir, they have Gujarat in mind. So, when we decide, we too have both perspectives playing on our minds. In certain ways the two situations are similar...in certain ways.

Is an early election in Gujarat a possibility?
The people who talk of early elections have no authority. So, if it is a few mad people who keep talking about it, why should we bother?

What parameters will you consider before starting the electoral process?
There’s no cause for action now. The assembly exists. We come into the picture when the assembly period is over. All relevant points will be taken into account when elections are held. We are very alive to the two (Kashmir and Gujarat) being put together. That’s all I can say. You can draw any conclusion from that...assuming that we are sensible people.

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