Interviews |

O P Rawat | India’s electoral integrity suffers in the areas of campaign finance and media coverage

G’nY. What are your views on holding simultaneous elections throughout India? Why are they desirable, and if they are, is it feasible to conduct simultaneous elections?

O P Rawat : The Election Commission (EC) has often been asked about the possibility of simultaneous elections and what would be the requirements for the same. Firstly, a legal framework has to be developed. Amendments need to be made to the Constitution and to the Representation of People Act, 1951 and then logistical requirements need to be met. Since the legal framework has not yet been put in place, the Commission is continuing with conducting elections whenever they are due—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Mizoram and Telangana will face elections soon. For now, elections to state assemblies will be held in these states. In case the legal framework is put in place in the future, we will go ahead with holding simultaneous elections, as was the case with the elections of 1952, 1957, 1962 and 1967. Logistical issues will need to be dealt with too. First, we will need a larger number of electronic voting machines (EVMs) than we currently have—at least twice the current number—one set for Lok Sabha and the other for state assemblies. Since the durability of EVMs is 15 years, they can only be used for three simultaneous elections. The costing thus needs to be considered. But the second logistical factor—the number of personnel required, puts us at an advantage. The same number of personnel will be deployed for both the elections, be it for polling management, or for security. The largest benefit we will get from simultaneous elections will be political. When elections will be held once every five years, the executive will get dedicated four and a half years to deliver to the electorate. Political will is hampered in many ways if elections keep happening every now and then. This can never be conducive for development. Unless we have a peaceful political environment, which is possible only if elections are not held again and again, we cannot have the development we need.

G’nY. Various objections are being raised against the idea of simultaneous elections. Considering the diverse needs and demands of the voter, do you think it will be better to let the current system continue?

O P Rawat : When we gained Independence, the British offered their services to help us run the country. But we declined and I do not think we are regretting that decision. The same thing holds good here. Our voters have come of age. Much of the expert advice that is offered to them is not needed, as they are well aware of their interests. All arguments about political culture do not hold, as far as the voting behaviour is concerned. I will give you one example to substantiate my point. The EC has an enforcement machinery that keeps track of all the happenings when elections are taking place. I remember, in one of the constituencies where voting was ongoing, we discovered that over INR 90 crores was being distributed to the electorate. When we were seizing the money, one voter objected. He pointed out that we were mistaken in believing that voters elect the parties that pay them. While they did take money, they voted for the candidates or parties they felt were delivering on their promises. This distilled wisdom from our voters shows that we should have full faith in them. All these technicalities—whether we hold simultaneous or separate elections—cannot influence them.

G’nY. Another issue is that of state funding of elections. In the last few years, both national and regional parties have increased their funds exponentially and there is no transparency as to where they are receiving these funds from. Is it possible firstly, to provide for direct monetary funding from the state and secondly, indirectly, can equitable allocation of time on radio, television, etc. be enabled to all parties?

O P Rawat : There are two aspects to this. The first is, of course, the indirect way, which is to say, equitable allocation of air time for campaigns. This is a good thing because if the EC allocates the air time and the telecast time, it will provide support to all those parties that are not able to acquire contributions from the corporate sector. However, the other aspect is to check the abuse of money. There state funding will fail miserably. The money that will be distributed will hardly suffice, say, INR 15-20 lakhs per constituency. Take a look at what the actual expenditure is—candidates have reportedly spent up to INR 90 crores in a single constituency. This is the main worry, as our electoral integrity perception suffers. Harvard University’s electoral integrity project places us in the higher ranks among world’s democracies and our scores in areas like autonomy to the body managing the elections, electoral laws, procedures and counting are high. But this is not enough. We score quite low in the areas of campaign finance and media coverage, be it print, electronic, or social media. The EC wants to help clean up the political system. We have submitted several reform proposals and are in the process of submitting more. Take the example of political funding. We felt that all contributions to political parties should be through digital means and cash contributions should be restricted. Therefore, the cap on cash donation, which stood at INR 20,000, was suggested to be reduced to INR 2,000, which the government has executed. We are now progressing to place a complete prohibition on
cash donations.

G’nY. The issue of EVM tampering has been brought up in the recent past. Multiple allegations, across party lines, have been raised and there are news reports of malfunctioning EVMs. Can EVMs malfunction, even if tampering has not occurred?

O P Rawat : EVM malfunction is not of the kind where if you press the button for one party, the vote goes to another. What may, however, happen is that the EVM does not work and displays an error, or the ballot does not load. We replace the machines whenever these issues come up. In the new machines that we are using, a voter verified paper audit trail is printed. At times, it may happen that the voter does not receive a print out. These are the kinds of malfunctioning that may happen with an EVM. Examples of votes going to a party that a voter had not chosen are figments of imagination. All these allegations have been answered comprehensively by the EC in our EVM Status Paper, which can be read on
our website.

G’nY. There is a spatial variation of voting behaviour. West Bengal, for example had a high voter turnout as compared to Bihar. What are your views?

O P Rawat : There are many factors that affect voting behaviour. For example, in the recent Karnataka elections, we found that the lowest voting occurred in Bengaluru. What should we make of it? There is relatively lesser unemployment and illiteracy in the city. In fact, it is the IT hub of our country, with considerable population being on the younger side. Still, the voting percentage was as low as 52, despite all our efforts. What the EC learnt from its analysis is that firstly, we are not yet responsible citizens. If you are registered at a place as a voter and migrate to another place, it is your duty to ensure that your name is deleted from the original electoral roll and is registered in the new location. The EC is always trying to enrol as many people as is possible, but what this does is that it erroneously increases the number of registered voters. Consider the example of Bengaluru again. People move to the city, change jobs and move again, but they do not get their names removed from the electoral roll. This results in an inflation in the voters list and when we count the number of votes cast, the eventual voter turnout is bound to be low.

The second factor affecting voter behaviour is migration. People might be travelling or may be engaged somewhere which can result in the inability to vote. Third is awareness. In states like West Bengal, North-Eastern and Southern states, the voter is well aware of the issues and the importance of voting. In fact, in Kerala, many polling stations have as much as 90 per cent voter turnout. On the other hand, in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, the awareness level is not very high. Poverty too plays some role in voter turnout—people do not want to sacrifice on their wage earning opportunity, for what is considered to be a completely non-productive work- going to a polling booth and standing in queue. I will add here that even caste does not affect broader patterns. It is only post-election interpretations that attempt to bring home the point that caste still matters. See the case of Bihar—people voted for Nitish Kumar irrespective of their caste.

G’nY. The Indian voting system is based on the idea of ‘first past the post’. Do you think this system has outlived its utility? For example, Germany has the mixed member proportional representation system, where two votes are cast so that the individual candidates as well as parties get adequate representation.

O P Rawat : I will answer this question in my personal capacity. What I feel is that the democratic deficit in first past the post system is huge. I will return again to the example of Bengaluru. In a scenario of 52 per cent voter turnout, when votes are distributed, a candidate who gets even 17 per cent of the vote wins. Whereas, a much larger number of people than the actual voters might be opposed to the winning candidate, or may have been indifferent to him or her. This deficit takes a heavy toll on the performance of the government and something needs to be done to reduce this. There are various alternatives that can be considered. Mixed member proportional representation, like in Germany, may be one. But all of these are in the realm of policies and laws that need to be enacted by the Parliament. We are nowhere close to having a law that enables this.

G’nY. Will we see a new delimitation and state-wise seat allocation based on population figures, after 2026? How urgently do we need this, considering the fact that population figures are becoming unwieldy and it may be difficult for one member of parliament to cater to the needs of a population dense constituency?

O P Rawat : I think the population wise seat allocation has served us well so far. As far the reallocation of seats based on population figures is concerned, it is likely to be pushed beyond 2026. Only when the Census publishes its results in 2031, will we have the results to conduct delimitation. At first just the preliminary results are made available. Further nuanced results will take more time. So delimitation will only be feasible one decade after 2026. Coming back to the question of reallocation, and how a member of parliament can reach out to a large population covered under one constituency, we need to develop the means that can help representatives. Greater air time on the radio or television, for example, where both private and public media can be roped in. Right now we only have All India Radio and Doordarshan for this, which do not have comprehensive coverage. If we bring in the private media and invest some money for allocating air time to representatives, then to some extent, the problem of reaching out to voters in constituencies can be addressed.

G’nY. India has a large number of political parties as of today. Do you think it would be a good idea to have a two-party system like the US?

O P Rawat : I do not think that we should be looking at the issue of two-party system from this perspective—whether this system is needed for a mature democracy is a different matter. Things like this depend on what the people need. Political parties grow from the soil. If there is a need felt among the people, and they feel that they need to associate themselves with a party, they have every right to do so as a citizen of a democratic country. But it is only when both the democracy and voters mature, that the politicians mature. If that happens, pruning will take place by itself and we will reduce the number of parties. But these things are at a very nascent stage in India. Our democracy is only 70 years old, whereas the USA democratic system spans hundreds of years. We will eventually have a process that will bring the party system to order. But for now, we will have to wait for it.

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