‘EVMs are absolutely credible, they are robust.’
‘It’s only a calculator with certain instructions. And the sim card inside an EVM is burnt and cannot be reprogrammed.’
‘Besides, the machines are circulated among various states. No machine is allowed to remain in one state after an election.’
‘By far, it is one of the finest innovations India should be proud of.’
Taruvai Subayya Krishnamurthy served as Chief Election Commissioner of India from February 2004 to May 2005, and it was under him that the 2004 Lok Sabha election was held.
The EVMs were introduced for the first time in the 2004 general election.
“The first past post the system is a colonial legacy. It was all right at the time of Independence when a majority of the voters were uneducated and didn’t know to exercise any complicated system of voting. Now that we have had elections for the last more than seven decades, we can go for some changes,” the former CEC tells Rediff.com‘s Shobha Warrier .
Recently you said it was time we looked at the first past the post system we follow. Why do you feel so?
This system has been in use from the beginning of our Constitution with some changes introduced through the Supreme Court judgment.
In July 2004, when I was the Chief Election Commissioner, I wrote a letter to the then prime minister listing about 24 recommendations which could bring about some improvement in the quality of our democracy.
What were these recommendations?
The major one was that there should be a separate law for political parties.
For example, if a person stands in more than one constituency and resigns from one of them, s/he has to put up the expenditure for the by-election in that constituency.
Then, once a chargesheet is filed against a person in a criminal court, s/he should be barred from contesting elections.
I had also suggested NOTA, which fortunately came into existence.
Unfortunately, many of the changes which we had asked for did not get implemented.
What do you think needs to be changed urgently?
The most urgent change that is needed in the electoral system in the present situation is the first past the post system, which exists right now, should be changed.
In this first past the post system, people with even 20% to 25% votes get elected. As a result, you see many small parties thriving because of their dominance in a particular area. And, it doesn’t contribute to the national outlook.
What is happening today is, even national parties seem to be having more local interest than national interests.
The first past post the system is a colonial legacy. It was all right at the time of Independence when a majority of the voters were uneducated and didn’t know to exercise any complicated system of voting.
Now that we have had elections for the last more than seven decades, we can go for some changes.
What kind of change should we have instead of first past the post system?
There are plenty of changes, like proportional representation or a mixed system of partly proportional representation and partly the present system.
But the easiest for our country’s need is that there has to a minimum of 33 and 1/3rd percent votes polled for a winner to be declared.
What if the person who got the maximum number of votes does not poll this 33 and 1/3rd per cent votes?
We have to go for a repoll.
Today, they are putting up candidates who has the winnability of 20% to 25%. But once you insist on 33 and 1/3rd%, they will have candidates accordingly. If not, there will be a repoll.
The present system has not worked to have a national outlook among political parties.
After 5 or 10 years, we should hike the minimum votes needed to 50%. This can be done gradually.
There are many countries in the world that has a minimum of 50% for declaring a winner.
You spoke of a separate law for political parties. What does it mean?
There is a separate law for political parties in many countries. Unfortunately, in India, we don’t have one.
For example, like when a political party is formed, under what conditions it should be formed, how the parties should keep their accounts or when there is a dispute, what are the principles to be followed. Now, we are carrying on on the basis of some rulings of the Supreme Court.
Also, what should be mentioned in the manifesto. The Supreme Court has given a judgment that broad guidelines can be given by the Election Commission.
In my opinion, the manifesto should only speak of public goods and not freebies or private goods or sectional goods for the people.
You can talk of building dams or roads, but not about giving laptops or grinders. You are actually bribing them by giving such freebies.
In fact, the Supreme Court took it up, but left the decision to the Election Commission. On the other hand, the court had specified what all things can be mentioned in the manifesto and what should not be.
What can be done so that there is transparency in political funding?
Yes, the third most important thing is political funding which also should come as part of the law.
At the moment donations can be given and they have introduced electoral bonds which they claim as more transparent. But these bonds are not transparent at all; it is more opaque.
Only the donor and the donee know who gives the donation, and not the public. What is more important is the public should know.
It also encourages an obnoxious nexus between the political parties and the corporates.
If you really want to clean up the system, you have to have a national election fund. Whoever wants to give donations, should give to the fund.
You can give 100% tax exemption to the donation so that you can build a corpus. Anybody can give any amount.
In the US, every candidate collects funds for their campaign…
But that is done transparently. They collect funds by holding meetings and they give an account of how much was collected. There is no such thing in India.
Here, anonymous donations are given.
The law says anybody can anonymously donate up to Rs 2,000 which was Rs 20,000 earlier. They seem to think that is an improvement, but what happens is, they split donations to Rs 2,000 and below as anonymous donations.
Can’t the Election Commission do anything about it?
The EC has the authority to question. All that it can do is to pass it on to income tax authorities.
When the law says a party can collect anonymous donation of Rs 2,000, the IT department also cannot call it illegal.
We need to have a law that can snap the nexus between the corporates and the political parties.
The end result today is, the policies of the government are influenced by the donors directly and indirectly.
So, the best thing is to have a national election fund. The Tatas started a corpus fund like this, but it didn’t work very well.
Is not a national fund more of a utopian idea?
I don’t think so. Now, we provide the facilities from the government, like sharing the telephone, television, voters list, etc. So, there shouldn’t be any difficulty in sharing the funds.
In my opinion, if you really want to improve the quality of elections and democracy in this country, you have to have a national election fund.
Funds should not be given directly to the parties.
In 1997, when there was a Constitutional crisis because of a weak coalition government at the Centre, I had interviewed former President R Venkataraman.
He said we had to have an electoral system which should eliminate the party that polled the least in the elections, and we should go on eliminating parties till we had a two-party system at the national level.
What is your opinion on this?
It is a sign of a mature democracy when the parliamentary elections have two parties and the state elections have more parties. But how do you achieve this? It is not easy.
I have also mentioned in my book that there can be a pre-poll alliance with a single poll symbol which should remain so till the tenure of Parliament is over.
No party in the alliance should be allowed to cross over till the term is over. They can resign, but not cross over.
Maybe you can have such two alliances and no party can contest elections unless they are part of the national alliances which they have to continue in till the term is over.
This, I feel is a good idea but I am not sure whether we can achieve it now.
What R Venkataraman said was that it may take several elections of eliminating small parties to achieve the two-party system…
It requires a lot of political maturity among the political parties. Unfortunately, what I see is, the standards are deteriorating and not improving.
Has any party mentioned electoral reforms in its manifesto? None.
If they are a little more accountable and mature with larger national interests, they should think of electoral reforms too. But none of them are talking about it.
Do you think they are scared of transparency resulting from electoral reforms?
I will not say they are scared. Obviously, they have reservations about short-term effects. They may boomerang against them initially, but in the long term, it will be in the interests of good democracy.
But nobody wants to think of the long-term benefits.
Are EVMs not a major reform that has happened to a country with so many people? But instead we see political parties finding fault with the EVMs when they lose the elections.
Although I introduced it for the first time in the 2004 parliamentary elections, I would say it was an excellent reform we had brought about. Earlier, in some by-elections, we had used it, but it was in the 2004 parliamentary elections that it was used in a big way.
It was a matter of national pride that Indian engineers made it. It is not a very expensive instrument either.
In my opinion, EVMs are absolutely credible. They are robust. It is only a calculator with certain instructions. And the sim card inside an EVM is burnt and cannot be reprogrammed.
Besides, the machines are circulated among various states. No machine is allowed to remain in one state after an election.
The names in the machine are arranged in alphabetical order of the name of the candidate and not according to any party.
There is no possibility of any EVM being misused. Machines don’t lie.
Most importantly, it saves 200,000 to 300,000 rolls of paper. Also, there is no invalid vote in an EVM.
Before we introduced the machine, there were plenty of bogus votes polled in each election.
By far, it is one of the finest innovations India should be proud of.
This time, we are going to have a 7-phase election that extends for a month. Why do we have such a long election process?
Is it because we have almost 900 million registered voters in the country, which is more than the population of Europe or Africa?
Yes, the main reason is we have a huge voting population.
The second reason is, every state has its own peculiarities.
Yes, it is preferable to have a one day or two-phase election. As of now, it is not possible.
If you take states like Maharashtra or Andhra or Chhattisgarh, there are places you cannot even reach by road.
We reach some polling stations by camels, elephants, helicopters and sometimes, the polling agents walk for two days to reach a polling station.
In the Himalayas, we have polling stations for even one person.
So, it is a very challenging exercise to conduct elections in India.
Is it the huge number of people the most challenging aspect of Indian elections?
Yes. In addition to that, violence, hatred, money power and muscle power complicate the elections.
In Bihar, we used to get complaints that Dalits who had to cross through the non-Dalit areas to vote, were not allowed to vote.
And, most of the states do not believe in their own state police as they are all biased.
Even a ruling party of a state had asked us to bring in central paramilitary forces.
Unfortunately, none of the states has had any reforms in the police force.
In one state, the superintendent of police addressed a rally of the chief minister.
In another state, the wife of the DGP contested the election on the ruling party’s ticket.
The kind of violence associated with elections has come down a lot in the recent times. So also booth capturing.
Is it because the Indian electorate is maturing or is it because the Election Commission is more vigilant?
It must be both. We have to give credit to the voters and also the arrangements made by the Election Commission so that violence is not allowed.
Yes, militancy in Kashmir has disrupted elections. I have found that it is easier to conduct elections in Kashmir than in Maoist affected areas.
Voters are happy that they have NOTA as a weapon to use against politicians. If NOTA gets more votes than the winner, what will happen?
As of now, the law does not allow NOTA votes to be counted beyond the winner’s votes. So it has no value from the point of view of declaring a winner.
Let us assume the difference between the winner and the loser is about 5,000 votes and NOTA got 5,005 votes, we should recognise the NOTA votes and have a re-poll.
Political parties get the message then that voters don’t like their candidates.
When the number of NOTA votes increases, some countries have the legislative authority to have a repoll and the same candidates should not contest the elections. In India, we have not started following this.
Before T N Seshan took charge as the CEC, people did not even know the power the Election Commission had. Do you feel if the Election Commission was able to do so many reforms, it is because of Seshan?
I always say, if you were to write the history of the Election Commission, it will be divided into pre-Seshan and post-Seshan.
Seshan did bring about a lot of changes and made people know that Election Commission was an independent Constitutional authority. The credit goes to him.
India is the largest democracy in the world. But how mature is our democracy compared to other countries?
I wish I could answer this question easily. In my book, I have mentioned that there should be an international standard for determining the quality of democracy with index for minimum democracy and maximum democracy.
We have some very many good features, but we cannot claim ourselves to be a mature or responsible democracy. We have a lot of improvements to make.
Is lack of education the reason for lack of maturity?
Maybe to some extent. I will not say it is entirely due to lack of education. It is also because of lack of character among our leaders.
If you can have more leaders like Manohar Parrikar, we can be a lot better. He never made a fuss about anything. I have seen him standing in queues without anyone noticing him. Do you think we will have politicians like him? I am not sure about it.
Vivekananda said if India can have 100 good youths, they can change the country.
If we can have 100 politicians like Manohar Parrikar, the country will change.
Maybe we are evolving, but we are taking too much time in evolving. So, future generations are going to pay a price.
If we want our democracy to be safe, reforms should be expedited.
If one political party can say it will take electoral reforms as one of the things to do in the first 100 days of the government, I will appreciate the gesture.
Former CEC T S Krishnamurthy’s photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj for Rediff.com