Don't thrust simultaneous polls on people without consensus: ex-CEC
Former CEC SY Quraishi expects a robust and impartial Election Commission that swiftly addresses code of conduct violations in the upcoming assembly polls
With a high-level committee exploring the possibility of conducting simultaneous polls in India, former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi on Thursday said if national consensus is not achieved on the proposal, it should not be "thrust on the people".
Quraishi also said it is expected that the present Election Commission will "show spine" and be "strong and tough" in taking swift and neutral action in cases of model code of conduct (MCC) violations in the upcoming assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana and Mizoram.
In an interview with PTI about his new book titled India's Experiment with Democracy: The Life of a Nation Through its Elections, the former poll panel chief said one cannot legally find fault with parties promising "freebies", and noted that even the Supreme Court could not abolish the practice.
Quraishi's book, published by HarperCollins India and launched on Wednesday, takes an in-depth look at the history, processes and politics of elections in India.
Speaking to PTI, Quraishi hit out at the use of electoral bonds as a means of political funding, alleging that it has made the whole process of donations "absolutely opaque".
"In 2017, the then finance minister (Arun Jaitley) made a speech and his first sentence was music to my ears, he said that without transparency of political funding, free and fair elections are not possible. That is exactly what we have been saying.
"His second sentence was also music (to my ears) that for the last 70 years, we have not been able to achieve transparency in political funding. I thought his third sentence would be that we are going to enforce transparency, but what he did was that he introduced electoral bonds, which killed whatever transparency existed," said Quraishi, who served as chief election commissioner (CEC) from July 2010 to June 2012.
He also asserted that the debate around the use of EVMs (electronic voting machines) was "totally unnecessary" and "ill-advised" and urged Opposition parties to focus on other possible malpractices such as manipulation of electoral rolls.
"On the EVM controversy, I have said many times that the political parties which are questioning it are wasting their time. Recently I heard one or two political leaders questioning it and they belong to a party that won with the same EVMs hands down in Karnataka," he said in an apparent reference to the Congress.
Asked about the simultaneous polls proposal and a high-level panel headed by former President Ram Nath Kovind to explore the possibility, Quraishi said the matter has been debated for years and has both pros and cons. "I have written many articles, some of which have been included in the book, I have given both sides. There is no right or wrong answer," he said.
There are many advantages of simultaneous elections, such as cutting costs of repeated elections. Also, repeated polls mean that a district administration is taken away from normal duties for election duty, he pointed out.
"But most importantly what was not mentioned politically but I would like to mention is that during elections, communalism, casteism and corruption peak and so if we are always in election mode, these vices overtake the polity, which is an unfortunate situation. So perhaps elections once every five years is a better idea," he said.
But on the downside, constitutionally it may not be possible because of the logic that if a state government falls in a year for whatever reason, one cannot keep the state under President's rule for four years, he said.
"Or vice versa, if in Lok Sabha the government falls like the Vajpayee government fell in 13 days, what do you do?... you can't keep the Lok Sabha going and can't hold elections in the entire country," Quraishi said.
Federalism requires that the state should follow its own course of polity and the way it is going is "okay", he added.
"Therefore it (simultaneous polls proposal) has pluses and minuses, and as the prime minister has been saying, there has to be a national consensus. So, the debate which is going on, if a national consensus is achieved, nothing like it, but if it is not achieved, it should not be thrust on the people" the former CEC said.
Asked about the freebies debate and current CEC Rajiv Kumar's remarks recently that freebies announced by political parties and state governments bear the tadka of populism, Quraishi said legally, one cannot find fault with parties making such promises ahead of polls.
"It (freebies issue) had even gone up to the Supreme Court which could have declared it illegal, it did not, it could have called it a corrupt practice, it could not," he said.
All it stated was that the Election Commission should come up with some guidelines, which is neither here nor there, he opined. "The Election Commission came up with some perfunctory guidelines, I would say perfunctory, because they were asked by the Supreme Court, they had to do something, (so they said) 'you should be careful making your promises and inform voters how you will raise money to fulfil them etc.' But that is easier said than done," Quraishi said.
But, legally it is a legitimate political activity and even the Supreme Court could not abolish it, he added.
On the MCC violations in recent elections and the criticism of the EC being toothless on occasions, Quraishi said, "It happened because different incumbents have different styles. Over the last 70 years, everyone's style has been different. So sometimes, incumbents have been accused of soft-pedalling and being soft on violations, others have come down heavily on violations. We expect the present commission will show spine and will be strong and tough in taking swift and neutral action in the upcoming polls."
On the number of women in the Lok Sabha not being up to the mark, Quraishi said women have always scored better on winnability than men, and hoped that the Women's Reservation Act would remedy the trend of low representation of women.
He also highlighted how very few Muslims made it to legislatures over the years with their numbers always being disproportionately low to their population.
"It is said their (Muslims) appeasement is taking place when in reality they are being ignored and discriminated against. See the data of the last 70 years, the number of Muslim MPs is much smaller than their population," he said.