New Delhi: Defending the Election Commission and the use of electronic voter machines, Chief Election Commissioner OP Rawat blamed the political parties and said they failed to turn up for the EVM challenge, and the ones who did participate only wanted to learn about the functions of the EVM.
Also dismissing the charge that he is a stooge of the government, Rawat said it was the government which vetoed the EC’s plan to have contempt provision like the courts.
Rawat, who was in conversation with CNN-News18’s Marya Shakil, said that the EC has launched many innovative ideas like ‘Cvigil’ app for citizens to report any violation of the model code of conduct during elections. The CEC said that the Commission was well prepared for the upcoming state elections and that the preparation for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were also in full swing.
Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: The EC is facing a massive credibility crisis. Questions are being raised about the authenticity of the votes that are being cast. Mr Kamal Nath and other leaders took you to the court, although the SC dismissed their petition. But how do you conduct elections when there’s a huge cloud around whether these processes are free and fair?
OP Rawat: I don’t take it as a credibility crisis for the organisation because the EC is committed to ensure that all our stakeholders, all political parties, all candidates, have full faith and confidence in the system. We take all steps to ensure that all their doubts are set at rest. So when some party came to us, sought time, we immediately gave them time, heard their complaints, heard their concerns and immediately put teams to enquire about that. We ensured that whatever was the ground reality was conveyed to them. That didn’t satisfy them and, therefore, they went to the SC.
Not finding any merit, the SC dismissed their plea. It’s the same thing about EVMs. The Commission came out with the EVM challenge and asked the parties to select the EVMs from whatever strong room: be it Punjab or UP because after those elections these issues came up. Nobody came. The two parties that did come said they only wanted to learn about the functions of the EVM system. At the all-party meeting, they asked that elections henceforth are held with VVPAT or the ballot papers. The Commission immediately accepted that all elections after July will be held with VVPAT.
Q: How do you respond to the opposition charge that you are a stooge of the establishment?
OP Rawat: People can say whatever they like because they’ve freedom in this country. The EC felt that it should also be given powers for contempt as the courts have, but the government said no. In a democratic set up, constitutional authorities do not have these kind of powers because they have to address all the concerns of the stakeholders.
Q: Sir, do you feel you’re a toothless tiger then?
OP Rawat: No, not at all. We have all the powers within the law. The SC has said that since the Commission is entrusted with the work of maintaining electoral rolls and providing superintendence, direction and control for conduct of elections, whenever a situation arises where the law doesn’t provide any solution the EC can decide what will meet the situation squarely and that’ll be the legal solution.
Q: As you conduct elections in the five states, have the preparations for 2019 begun as well?
OP Rawat: Yes. In fact for parliamentary elections, we start our preparation a year in advance and this year we began in January 2018. Most of the work is nearing completion. The first level check of EVM machines and VVPATs is almost 40% complete. The procurement of materials, revisions of electoral rolls, training of master trainers is in full swing. I’m sure that by December end the preparations for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be complete.
Q: Will we be seeing seeding of Aadhaar with voter ID for 2019 elections?
OP Rawat: That is what the Commission thought in 2015 and we had seeded nearly 300 million voters’ Aadhaar with a picture. But then this privacy issue came and some petitions are still pending on Aadhaar linking with the picture. As soon as these are decided, we will immediately restart our work which was left midway in 2015.
Q: What are you doing on the election spending front because the EC has been raising it as a concern but nothing concrete has happened on that front, sir?
OP Rawat: You’re right. That is our main challenge and our main worry. The abuse of money is visibly increasing. Also, there is no sealing on party expenditure. During the last all-party meeting it was suggested that there should be a ceiling on even party expenditure. The EC is looking for innovative ideas to curb the menace.
Q: What are the innovative ideas?
OP Rawat: We have started empowering citizens by launching a mobile app called ‘Cvigil,’ for citizens to report any violation of the model code of conduct during elections. Our flying squad will immediately swing into action once we are informed about any wrongdoing.
Q: How do you plan to fight fake news menace on social media, Mr Rawat?
OP Rawat: That is also a major concern for the EC. We took immediate steps and constituted a group of officers and senior deputy election commissioner. We then called all the social media platform heads of the country as well as regional heads and held discussions with them. They committed that they will be flagging any violation during the campaign period. A pilot project was put to test during Karnataka elections. Now in these five states, we will again put the project to test.