Simultaneous polls possible in two phases, in 2019 & 2021, says former CEC SY Quraishi

Former CEC SY Quraishi said that holding simultaneous elections in 2019, as being desired by the current government, was “impossible,” since India didn’t have enough EVMs to carry out such an exercise


Dhairya Maheshwari

An Election Commissioner since 2006 and the Chief Election Commissioner between 2010 and 2012, SY Quraishi was witness to the transition from paper ballots to Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), a major overhaul in the way India conducted its elections.

Even post-retirement he has been a regular commentator, written a book on Indian elections and continues to take a lively interest in issues related to polls. National Herald met him for a free-wheeling conversation. Excerpts from the interview:

  • How do you view the ongoing push to hold simultaneous elections by the current government?

A. Well, there are benefits as well as disadvantages of holding simultaneous polls. It is a good idea from the view of convenience of the voters and election managers. The voters, polling staff and the polling booths will be the same. The voters will not have to come over to the polling station over and over and they could elect their representatives to the Parliament, state assemblies and local bodies all at once. Another benefit, as mentioned by the Prime Minister, is that it would cut down costs. Thirdly, the disruption in development works would also be cut down to a minimum, as has been argued. Well, all of these are quite valid points.

I would like to add two more reasons to the case of holding of simultaneous polls. As I have often said, elections have become root cause of all corruption in the country. When they spend crores, they have to raise crores by hook or crook. It is a vicious cycle of corruption in a way. Fourthly, the problems of communalism and casteism become aggravated at the time of elections, which is dangerous for the country.

  • What are the advantages of the staggered elections?

A. The current system of holding staggered polls has its own benefits. From the voters’ point of view, it can be argued that common people love elections. An MP from the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) once remarked that voters love elections. For them, , especially those from poor and rural backgrounds, it is the only time when they feel empowered in a democracy. A common grouse of most of the voters in the country is that the elected representatives start to take them for granted once the polling process is over.

There is an interesting slogan I heard from a student at a student parliament in Pune, which goes, “Jab jab chunao aata hai, gareeb ke pet mein pulaao aata hai, which roughly translates into that the elections provide many opportunities to the poor. A study by an independent body had found that approximately Rs 30,000 crore were spent by political parties in the 2014 elections. That, in a way, helped the economy since this money got circulated from political parties to the poor. Lots of work opportunities get created by the money spent during the polls.

A major drawback of holding simultaneous elections is that national and regional issues could potentially get mixed up, to the detriment of not only regional but also national parties. For instance, why would a person, who is agitated about a broken sewer, vote for a national party which is talking of macro issues. Why would he bother about what India’s foreign or economic policies are when he goes to cast his vote? He is concerned about the ground realities. So, contrary to public perception, voters may just vote for parties taking care of their local concerns.

As far as apprehensions of regional parties go, the main one is that holding simultaneous polls would convert the elections into a Presidential form of poll and boost the chances of the powerful candidate, in this case the Prime Minister.

  • Another argument in favour of holding simultaneous polls is related to restrictions imposed by the Model Code of Conduct. The insinuation is that all government work comes to a standstill because elections are being conducted round the year…

A. I would like to mention that the suggestion that developmental works get obstructed at the time of elections is highly exaggerated. The Model Code already says that no ongoing work or program has to stop because of the elections. Even new works may be taken up at the time of elections in case of emergencies, like earthquakes, floods or any other natural calamities. Even urgent, new programmes could be started with prior permission of the EC, which has to examine whether a scheme is just a poll gimmick designed to seduce the voters or it can wait.

When you were the CEC, did the Commission ever receive any suggestion for simultaneous polls or did political parties ever complain about too many elections?

Well, the idea is not entirely new. Mr LK Advani had mooted the idea of holding simultaneous polls in a blog in 2010. But it has occupied the centre stage of debate only recently, after Prime Minister Modi flagged it.

  • Do you believe the Election Commission is adequately equipped to conduct simultaneous elections in 2019?

A. For EC, that is the most convenient. As I said, voter, polling staff, polling stations and the security apparatus are the same. The only additional requirement is that of extra EVMs. In the current system of staggered elections, the machines used in one election are used again by erasing the previous data. EC would require two to three times the EVMs in case it is decided to hold simultaneous polls.

  • Can we hold simultaneous elections in 2019? The Law Commission and the Election Commission have more of less given a green signal to the idea, it seems...

A. I doubt if we could have simultaneous elections in 2019, since we don’t have enough machines. All other issues, including making changes to the Constitution, may be sorted out but the fact remains that we don’t have the machines. So, 2019 seems impossible. But we may be able to have partial simultaneous elections in 2019, which will be in line with the recommendations of a Parliamentary Committee. The Committee had suggested that if we couldn’t hold simultaneous elections once in five years, then maybe we could do it twice in every five years. So, half the states could go to polls in 2019, and the other half of the bunch could hold polls in 2021. That seems a real possibility at the stage.

Collegium must appoint Election Commissioners

  • The credibility of the Election Commission has of late come under a cloud, with critics of the government alleging that there is increased interference from authorities. What do you think about that?

A. Any aspersion on EC is not only unfortunate but also dangerous for democracy. The best assurance of the credibility of the Election Commission would be to have institutional safeguards, like appointment of commissioners through the system of collegium.

I would say that most powerful Election commission of the world, which is the Election Commission of India, has the most defective system of appointments. The government of the day appoints us. Nowhere in the world is it as simple as that. What if the commissioners decide to toe the government line? In order to create a possibility of nobody raising a finger, we need to have a system of collegium. If the leader of Opposition has signed on the appointment of the Election Commissioners, nobody then would have the gumption to raise a finer on their credibility.

  • Did you expect that EVMs and VVPATs, which were introduced during the time you headed the EC, would create the kind of controversy we see around them now?

A. We decided to introduce these machines only after a debate that had happened previously. A lot of consideration went into introducing these machines. Besides factory tests, we also organised nationwide tests in 2011 in five climatic zones. The tests showed a lot of bugs. So, we asked the factories to rework on the models, since we were aware that any bug in the machines would mean disruption of the polling process. We were aware that any such disruption would also create suspicion in the minds of people. That is why we tried to make sure that machines would be bug-free.

But by the time the reworked models started coming in, I had retired. Another thing that needs to be kept in mind is that the 20,000-odd machines that were being used at selective polling stations since 2013 hadn’t given us any problem. May be all those elections weren’t held in extreme heat, which is the reason being given by the Election Commission’s enquiry committee behind the malfunctioning of EVMs in the last byelections. But I think that these bugs could be taken care of by the factories.

One problem is that VVPATs’ malfunctioning is more likely than that of EVMs, since VVPAT is electromechanical in nature, with moving parts. To give you an analogy, a calculator continues to work without trouble for years while the printer goes out of order very frequently since it has moving parts.

  • Are EVMs hackable?

A. No, they cannot be hacked. They have been tried and tested and there are multiple checks on top of that. One should understand that they are stand alone units. Besides, there is an independent scrutiny of the manufacturing process of EVMs by a team of five IIT professors, who do this for the Election Commission pro bono.

Besides technical security, custodial security is also important. The machines are always kept in strong rooms guarded by armed security. Whenever the store is opened, political parties are informed and called to be present. From the state warehouses to the polling booths the deployment of EVMs is computer randomised. Even EC does not know which EVM will land up where.

  • Do you think that we should go back to the system of paper ballots in elections?

A. If the machines are functioning fine, episodes of booth-capturing have gone down, the counting process has been streamlined and are more reliable and the number of invalid votes has decreased as well, then why go back to the old system? And after the Supreme Court judgement that VVPATs are an answer to any residual doubts about EVMs, I think the controversy around the use of EVMs should just end. Probably, it would have died if the fiasco of VVPATs not functioning due to heat in the recent round of bypolls hadn’t happened.

(The second part of this interview, which was first carried in NH on Sunday, will be published later in the day).

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