While 2020 is about to come to a close, the Covid-19 crisis is still swirling. In an exclusive conversation with News18, chief election commissioner Sunil Arora recalls the challenges the poll body faced while conducting elections this year, even as he sheds light on what lies ahead in the electoral arena next year as well as crucial developments like the possibility of simultaneous elections and digital voter cards.
Q: With the coronavirus pandemic raging across the world in 2020, a big question was would it be possible to conduct elections. Amid all this, the Bihar assembly polls were carried out. The threat of Covid-19 is still lingering, and next year elections are to be held in five states. You defended the decision of holding polls in Bihar amid the pandemic and you did it. Now, how are the preparations for the five state elections?
Sunil Arora, chief election commissioner: See, we do a lot of homework in the background. Our secretary general had meetings with education board officials of all the five states including West Bengal to get information about the schedule of school examinations so that it does not clash with the dates of elections. We had meetings with officials of the home ministry regarding arrangement of security. All these deliberations have already been completed.
The deputy election commissioner (DEC) of Bengal travelled across the state first. On Monday, EC official Umesh Sinha will visit Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The first phase, in which a poll official visits a state before the EC, has begun.
Q: The election preparation process has already started. Most people believe the West Bengal polls will be fiercely fought. Just a few days ago the BJP president faced an attack, and a delegation also met you to discuss this incident and asked for deployment of more paramilitary forces, and they asked for immediate enforcement of the model code of conduct in the state. What would you like to say on this?
CEC: Keeping an eye on political issues is the domain of the media and you people make headlines out of them, sometimes, even out of thin air. But this was a real issue and it rightly grabbed the headlines. The BJP’s delegation had met us and we had told them about the visit of the official of the Election Commission. After we receive the report from the DEC about his visits, we will take decisions as per the law.
Q: Do you believe that the Bengal elections can be held without any violent incidents?
CEC: We do not give guarantees about anything, but we will try to conduct free and fair elections. So far, the efforts of the EC have been successful and we will be successful in future as well, with the grace of God.
Q: You said that you will take action on the basis of the report from Bengal.
CEC: The whole team of EC will visit Bengal and other states where elections are going to be held. We need empirical inputs and those officials who visit states, their reports carry weight. We have said that, after this visit, EC will also visit states. Officials held meetings with the state authorities and after this we will start consulting political parties of the concerned states. We are more focussed than you on the states where elections are to be held.
Q: In how many phases will the elections be held and when is the announcement on that coming?
CEC: The election schedule will be announced in a press conference and you will also be invited to it when it is held, and you will come to know about the number of phases for these elections at that time.
Q: During the Lok Sabha elections in Madhya Pradesh, the EC had taken a bold decision on the basis of a CBDT report. What was the basis of this action on your part?
CEC: The report of the CBDT was credible and it was not shared with anybody. During the last parliamentary elections, CBDT had taken some actions. The report had reached us and we discussed this report in our meeting. In the meeting of the EC, it was decided that it should be sent to the DoPT to initiate a CBI probe. The report received was a supplementary report in a sense. Prima facie, this report had some very damaging facts and it had names and details of some officials who acted as conduits for transfer of money. The EC decided that the report should be sent to the chief election officer of Madhya Pradesh so that the economic offences wing could be involved in the probe. As far as political parties are concerned, we do not take their names.
Q: Is the EC going to take further actions on this issue? Is it thinking of taking steps against the leaders involved as well?
CEC: This report has three categories and further analysis of it is going on. Even the supplementary report is 200 to 250 pages long. The report has 300 to 400 pages of annexure. Whatever is deemed fit under the law will be done and we will share it with you.
Q: Will there be action against political parties as well?
CEC: The commission has not deliberated on this.
Q: After the delimitation exercise in Jammu and Kashmir, how hopeful are you of restoring democracy in the state
CEC: The Election Commission had conducted Lok Sabha polls also in Jammu and Kashmir and in many constituencies, the commission had to conduct elections in three phases. When a responsibility is put on the EC, it does not backed out and that will not happen in the future also. We will fulfil our responsibilities.
Q: Regarding ‘one nation, one election’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that there is no need for any discussion on this issue now, and it has become a necessity for the country. How prepared is the EC for this?
CEC: We are ready for it. If the legislature carries out all the amendments, then EC is ready (for one nation, one election). The Election Commission is not authorised to decide this.
Q: Neeraj Kumar, News18 India: Regarding NRI voters, you have sent a proposal to the law ministry. There have also been informal deliberations with the ministry of foreign affairs regarding postal ballot. Will the NRIs get the right of postal ballot during the coming elections in five states?
CEC: It is too ambitious to allow this right during the elections in five states. But, yes, the proposal that we have sent is part of the process that was started in 2011. We have sent letters and have discussed the issue with the secretary of the ministry of foreign affairs. Many rounds of talks are yet to be held. It seems a bit ambitious to get this implemented during the elections in five states. But it would be good if it happens.
This is not true that we have decided to give this right to NRIs of just a few countries. For us, all the NRIs in any country are citizens of our country.
This process started in 2011. A Bill to this effect was also brought in the last Parliament but then Parliament was dissolved. Our suggestion is that changes in rules will be sufficient. We have sent our proposal after considering the legal issue. This proposal will be weighed by the law ministry as well.
After the nod of the ministry of foreign affairs and the law ministry, we will get down to our task of providing the right of postal ballots to NRIs.
Q: By when will voter ID cards be digitised, or is this still at the level of proposal?
CEC: This is not at the proposal level. Our tele-density has increased phenomenally. The digital card facility would be aimed at those voters who are young and educated and want to have an electronic version of the card. The difference is that it will have a barcode and QR code which will contain all the essential information. This will be started in the next financial year or may be in this financial year itself. Our effort is to provide this facility to all the people.
Q: People are watching every step taken by the EC regarding the elections in the five states …and Bengal is attracting most of the attention.
CEC: We are in the midst of the corona pandemic. The EC cannot ensure that during elections, nobody will contract infection. In Bihar, the elections were conducted by following proper guidelines. People will have to be alert about not getting infected by Covid-19 and we thank the people of Bihar, and the women there helped a lot. They came out to vote in large numbers, which increased the percentage of voting. Even the administration there did a marvellous job.
The five states where elections will be held next year will also do the same. It would be the job of the administration to see how it tackles those elements who want to create disturbances in elections. We will try our best to conduct inclusive and safe elections.
Q: TMC has said that EC does not have the authority to deploy paramilitary forces in West Bengal as of now.
CEC: The EC does not comment on statements given by leaders of political parties.