There is a need to revise the restrictions on campaigning during election campaigning as the advent of technology has thrown up new challenges in limiting access to material that may influence voters, outgoing chief election commissioner Sushil Chandra told Deeksha Bharadwaj In a wide-ranging conversation about his year-long stint, the electoral reforms introduced by the Commission, rise in digital campaigning, conducting elections amid the Covid-19 pandemic and recent delimitation exercises in Jammu and Kashmir that he has paved the way for. First set of assembly elections in the Union Territory. Edited excerpts:
What do you think is the relevance of the technology in the age of silence?
A silence period is 48 hours before the ballot is cast. There is a need to revisit and reinvent restrictions on campaigning during the silence period in view of the emergence of new technologies. The instructions from the commission are clear; The next phase of campaigning for a candidate is not allowed to seek votes for the previous one. However, this has become harder to regulate. There is a need to make the regulations more effective and realistic.
The commission has also digitized a host of services. Do you think we are looking at more tech-oriented elections in the future?
It is the need of the hour to embrace technology. From shifting the filing of nominations to online nominations, to issuing digital voter ID cards, the Commission has focused on leveraging technology to make the election process more transparent. We even ramped up live webcasting of polling stations by more than 50%, especially that there was all-round coverage, especially in vulnerable areas.
Using the Cvigil app, a mobile application that allows citizens to register election related complaints, the commission also addressed about 47,000 complaints.
The use of social media has so far been regulated with a voluntary code of ethics. Do you think there is a need for stricter regulations?
The commission has a cell dedicated to addressing complaints made by improper remarks on social media. In several cases, the action was also taken against the guilty candidates and they were penalized. Another facet of the rise of social media is that candidates must declare expenditure on online campaigns as part of election spending. The candidate can choose what kind of advertisements they want – print, television or digital; But the expenditure must be incorporated into the overall spend.
A number of key electoral reforms were passed during your tenure, especially the controversial linking of Aadhaar numbers to voter ID cards. What are the advantages of this linkage, according to you?
Reforms are a dynamic concept and each commission ensures that they do their best to make the electoral process smoother and more efficient. One very important reform that the government has cleared is that voters can register now four times a year. This will ensure that every young voter gets the opportunity to make sure they can exercise their democratic right.
As for linking adadar numbers to voter ID cards, there is a clear advantage that it will help cleanse the electoral roll. It will ensure there are no duplicate entries in the electoral roll. However, that is not the only benefit. The linking can also provide proof of identity, which may become the foundation of online voting. It may help identify migrant workers and non-resident Indians and help them cast the ballot. But before online voting is implemented, it will need the consensus of all stakeholders, civil society and political parties.
Will NRIs be able to vote anytime soon?
Chandra: The issue with voting NRIs is a logistical one. The Commission will evaluate the infrastructure needs and then proceed. Right now, barely 10% of the total NRIs are registered as voters, a little over a million, as compared to the 1.25 crore Indian population abroad. This number will increase once the commission provides them with the opportunity to vote.
You took over the commission at a time when it was mired in controversy over the five assembly polls held last year. It was also at the height of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. What learnings helped you conduct the polls this year?
Every election is different and presents different challenges. When the process for the polls (UP, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur and Goa) was kickstarted, it seemed to be pandemic under control. But as we moved along, the Omicron variant emerged. So, for the first time, the commission decided to ban all physical rallies and roadshows.
To keep pace with developments, the Commission held weekly meetings, while constantly relaxing norms while keeping a watch on the situation. Vaccination was intensified in states that were lagging behind to curtail the spread of the pandemic. The Commission also provided candidates with an increased expenditure limit, to ensure that they could cover any additional costs for digital campaigning. The best part was that the political parties also cooperated in the effort, and where they were found lacking, the action was taken in keeping with the State Disaster Management Authorities’ rules.
You have also been a member of the delimitation commission that delineated the new assembly constituencies for Jammu and Kashmir. The final report has been opposed by several political parties on the grounds that it is biased. Your thoughts?
The delimitation exercise was a complicated one since there was no earlier report from 1995 to refer. Over the course of two years, the panel met several stakeholders from across the UT. In the first instance, it met about 850 people and then, heard from over 1,600. They all expressed their aspirations for the future of the UT.
The decision to allocate six new constituencies to Jammu and one to Kashmir was taken on the basis of topography, geography and population density. The density is so varied that in Kishtwar, it is 29 persons per square km, while in Srinagar it is 3,400.
Moreover, under the Delimitation Act, the panel has to consider public convenience, administrative units, infrastructure and communication facilities, besides the population factor. The decision was taken to ensure every segment is provided with proper representation.
What no one should forget is that Jammu and Kashmir are one unit. Let us not evaluate it separately. Once, the government clears the new delimitation award, the EC will have to undertake processes such as rationalization of polling stations and summary revision of electoral rolls, before deciding when to hold elections.
The panel also made the recommendation to provide Kashmiri migrants representation. Why was that?
Chandra: The delimitation commission heard representations from hundreds of people. The Kashmiri migrants made the case that they were expelled under trying circumstances from the erstwhile state. As such, they sought a say in its political processes, which they once had. But the commission can only make a recommendation. It is up to the government to decide how to provide them the space.
Is the country ready for one nation, one election?
As far as the ECI is concerned, the country can hold simultaneous polls. If you look at the first three general elections, they were all held simultaneously. Similarly, we will need to amend the constitution and bring the assembly polls in line with the general elections. This way we will not be required to conduct polls every few months.
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