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None of the below? - K S Narayanan - The Sunday Indian
 
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Friday, October 20, 2017
 
 

None of the below?

 

As General Electionsdraw closer, the enormity of holding a successful event-free poll falls on the Election Commission of India (ECI). election commissioner Harishankar Brahma talks in an exclusive interview with KS Narayanan. and will "nota” really play an important role?
K S NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: February 9, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : University of Pune | NOTA | NIC | Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi |
 

Suhas Palshikar who teaches political science at the University of Pune, makes an interesting observation. “Like their festivals, Indians enjoy their elections, celebrate elections almost like festivities. But beyond this festive element, elections also carry important significance as democratic expression of people’s expectations from the political elite and popular assessments of governments and rulers’’.

So election time it is as India’s plurality is put to test yet again in the mother of all battles for the sixteenth Lok Sabha to be held around May this year. At a philosophical level, it will be repeating what it has done for the last six decades.

 There are many reasons why the forthcoming elections are going to be a humdinger.

1. The 2011 Indian Against Corruption (IAC) movement led by Anna Hazare virtually heralded the entry of the common man into politics. Emergence of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) as a party with promise has initiated a new zeal in the nation, giving the term anti-corruption a whole new meaning. Equally, the defeat of three-time Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and her party’s rout in the Delhi assembly was symbolic of nation’s mood.

2. Many blame Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for policy and decision paralysis, failing to stop scams - multi-crore telecom, coal or Commonwealth Games scams - and for failing to initiate large scale reforms that would have attracted both domestic and foreign investors and kept the growth story of Indian economy in-tact. Senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar said the decision to name Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister should have been reversed. Claiming that he had on an earlier occasion questioned the wisdom of such a decision, Aiyar said no Congress leader listened to him then. He also demanded a revamp of the party structure and added that Congress should sit in opposition and reinvent itself.

3. The Congress is faced by a crisis of its own with obvious choice Rahul Gandhi not being highly rated at the box office, despite a first-ever detailed interview given to a leading TV channel.

4. BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and three-time Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is trying to woo the electorate with his state’s model of development. At the BJP strategy meet, Modi called for building ‘brand India’, focusing on 5-Ts - talent, tradition, tourism, trade and technology. Despite anti-incumbency, Modi has his rivals within BJP, NDA and as well the Congress and now AAP to contend with.

5. Other key players expected to play important roles in the General Elections and government formation include regional satraps like AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa, BSP leader Mayawati and Trinamool chief and Bengal chief ministerMamata Banerjee, BJD leader and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Mohan Reddy of YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh.

The story of India’s elections is a story of large and mind boggling numbers. The national legislature consists of 543 elected seats currently—meaning that the entire electorate in the country is divided into 543 electoral districts or Lok Sabha constituencies. Each of these has an average voter population of .8 to 1.8 million. The total electorate of India was over 670 million in 2004 and 716 million in 2009!  According to the 2011 Census, the first-time voter number is a staggering 149.36 million. That’s well over 20 percent of the 725 million voters the Election Commission (EC) reckons will be eligible to vote in 2014.The total number first-time voters is likely to swell by May 2014 to around 160 million (the census was held in 2011).

Last year the Election Commission of India said it would introduce an SMS-based alert system called Communication Plan for Election (COMET) during the election. It is aimed at sending messages to millions of government officials on election duty and was successfully deployed in assembly elections in Goa, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Manipur in early 2012 and in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat in late 2012.

The COMET system “Uses coded text messages through mobile phones to collect data about officials, information about scheduled events like staff reaching the polling station, mock polls, start of polling, voting percentages every two hours, number of voters in after voting time and whether the poll party reached safely at the high security electronic voting machine (EVMs) deposited at the  centre.“ The system also sends alerts to the local police in case of disturbances at any polling station.

The Election Commission also implemented the `None of The Above’ during the recent assembly elections. Election Commission officials belive NOTA is popular in rural areas and predict it will make an impact in the next general elections, 2019.

Besides massive and raucous election rallies, politicians and political parties are hitting headlines thanks to opinion polls and electoral debates on 24x7 electronic media, social media.

Setting in motion the process of consultations with various stakeholders ahead of announcement, the Election Commission has convened a meeting of all recognized political parties on February 4 to discuss poll preparedness and other relevant issues. During the meeting, to be attended by the leaders of six recognized national parties and 47 state parties, the EC will discuss electoral rolls, polling stations and various factors which have a bearing on the timing of the polls.

The announcement for the forthcoming general elections could be made on March 3 with the Model Code of Conduct, which prohibits the government from formulating any major policy decisions, coming into play within two weeks of the announcement.

Union Ministries involved in infrastructure projects have informally been told by the Election Commission that they have till March 3 to push the processes forward.  The commission has also held consultations with the home ministry on force availability and deployment. Although poll dates usually factor in the examination schedules and crop cycles, the general elections for the last two Lok Sabha elections has clashed with annual examinations.

The prestige and popular acceptance of elections as a principle and also as a reality of India’s democratic politics deserves its credit. Palshikar has a point when he says that “Elections in India have earned legitimacy not because of any inherent qualities of the system but because of the investment made in elections by the elite and masses alike. It is not just the system of elections per se but the history of electoral practices producing credible electoral outcomes in India: prestige deriving from practice that has earned legitimacy. Therefore, the credit goes to those who framed the system, those who monitor it, and also to those who practiced it over the last six decades”. To discuss all that, Harishankar Brahma, election commissioner, speaks about the challenges which confront the ECI during the conduct of General Elections 2014 to reconstitute the 16 Lok Sabha by June this year. Asked about the spate of mud-slinging on arch political rivals and inciting electoral on communal violence, Brahma is confident that every player will fall in line once the Model Code of Conduct comes into play. “They will have time to play till we announce the model code,’’ he tells KS Narayanan in an exclusive interview.

‘Parties will have time to play till we announce the model code’

We are in 2014. India is all set to witness the mother of all electoral battles -the General Elections. How is the ECI geared to face this challenge?       
It is a fact we (Election Commission of India) are tense as the time approaches nearer. We have less than 90 day to start the business. The entire electoral operation has to be completed before May 2014 as the Lok Sabha has to be reconstituted before June this year. Everything has to be completed by May 23 or 24. We have to think in terms of conducting elections to 543 parliamentary seats in period of 30 to 35 days. That is a big challenge indeed. It is a huge challenge as we have 80 crore voters as on today. It is a big enterprise spread across 35 states and union territories. We have already started the work. I would like to tell you that we are mentally and physically prepared to do that. In 2009 we had a five-phased election. We may do it in six phases this time but we are yet to firm that up. This will happen only after meeting officials of the ministry of home affairs, officials of state governments; our colleagues in those states to have a proper understanding of the ground situation. The quality of electoral roll will decide the quality of the election. We need to have perfect electoral rolls. Some people might have died or migrated. All these have to checkd. Keeping a 100 per cent clean electoral roll is one of the biggest challenges in conduct of the election. It is the basic foundation of the quality of elections. Any flawed, fraud or spurious names, it does not create a good impression.

The ECI intends to issue photo identity cards to every eligible voter. Will it ensure cent percent voting?
Our intention is to issue photo I cards to every Indian voter. As of today 98 per cent of those registered have been issued Election Photo Identity Cards. Among the novel initiatives of the Election Commission, the voters who have been allotted EPIC (Electoral Photo I-Card) numbers, can take a print of their own voter slip and cast the vote. The commission is also making efforts to enable the voters to display the voter slip on their mobile phones as well.

In the recently held Assembly elections there were electoral malpractices of graft through cash and liquor.

Will the commission take punitive action against individuals and political parties who indulge in such malpractice?
 It is a fact the EC has been fighting the menace for the last five decades. The role of muscle and money (contraband like drugs and liquor) and freebies have tremendous effect in creating a non-level playing field. The Election Commission is making efforts to impose curbs. But let me admit, in our system it is quite difficult to curb 100 per cent. But at least we should be able to control 70 to 80 per cent. However it is a reality that Election Commission cannot this job alone. We need the cooperation from civil society, NGOs, media and all the citizens. In assembly elections in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu too, electoral malpractices cropped up.

In the recent assembly elections, the commission had introduced None of the Above (NOTA). Do you plan to extend it to the General Elections?
I would honestly accept the fact that we introduced the NOTA thanks to the Supreme Court judgment. NOTA was introduced in the assembly election of December 2013 in five states. What is interesting is that the NOTA is much more popular in rural areas than in urban areas. In urban areas despite educated people, there is no awareness about NOTA.

How far will NOTA strengthen the democratic process?
NOTA may not have had a very emphatic entry but it will create a tremendous effect on politics if not in 2014, then the general elections after that. Political parties will be forced to nominate better and acceptable and qualified candidates. It will definitely play a sterling role in India's elections.

With poll fever picking up during the last few weeks, political parties and leaders have indulged in personal attacks. How does the commission view it?                                                                            
Certain comments are not palatable whether there is election or not. Let us not indulge in it. We should limit ourselves to gentlemanly behaviour and should not go beyond that.

Does the commission have any plans to introduce the Right to Recall?
Its okay at the gram panchayat and municipal level elections but in India at a whole we can't use it. How do we implement it? It's too early for right to recall. We don't have systems in place.

Internet giant Google last month made a formal presentation to the EC proposing a tie-up with it for voter facilitation services ahead of Lok Sabha elections. The move was criticised in various quarters.

In December 2013, Google came with a presentation. We all know that the Google Search Engine is the best. But that issue is now closed. We are not going ahead with the agreement. It is a closed chapter.

Is there any alternative to what Google offered?
Of course. We are looking at the National Informatics Centre (NIC). NIC Director General Shefali Sushil Dash met and assured us of all the support. NIC can provide us the same facility that was offered to us by Google. None of the government or its departments would like to go to outsiders. Our emphasis would be NIC should come out with stronger and aggressive activity and servers so that we do it in house. Once the NIC develops an infrastructure everybody can use it.

How long will the NIC take to develop the required infrastructure for voter facilitation service?
From what I understood from the assurance given by NIC, they have already developed the capacity. But some technical details are being worked out.

Political parties have begun their campaign for Lok Sabha elections. There is a fear they may vitiate the atmosphere on communal lines. Will the commission act as a deterrent?
The commission has adequate laws. We know that once we announce and notify the elections, political parties will fall in line. Things are quite aggressive and people talk against each other. They have time to play till we announce it. It is routine affair. Once model conduct comes in force things will cool down and proceedings will be reasonable.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017