If national consensus not achieved on simultaneous polls, it shouldn’t be thrust on people: Ex-CEC Quraishi

If national consensus not achieved on simultaneous polls, it shouldn’t be thrust on people: Ex-CEC Quraishi

With a high-level committee exploring the possibility of conducting simultaneous polls, former chief election commissioner S.Y. Quraishi on Thursday said if a national consensus is not achieved on the proposal then it should not be “thrust on the people”.

Mr. Quraishi also said it is expected that the present Election Commission will “show spine” and be “strong and tough” in taking swift and neutral action in cases of model code of conduct violations in the upcoming assembly polls.

In an interview with PTI on his new book titled ‘India’s Experiment with Democracy: The Life of a Nation Through its Elections’, the former poll panel chief said one cannot legally find fault with parties promising “freebies” and noted that even the Supreme Court could not abolish the practice.

Mr. Quraishi’s book, published by HarperCollins India and released on Wednesday, looks in-depth at the history, processes and politics of elections in India.

Speaking with PTI, Mr. Quraishi hit out at the use of electoral bonds as a means of political funding, alleging that it has made the whole process of donations “absolutely opaque”.

“In 2017, the then finance minister (Arun Jaitley) made a speech and his first sentence was music to my ears, he said that without transparency of political funding, free and fair elections are not possible. That is exactly what we have been saying.”

“His second sentence was also music (to my ears) that for the last 70 years, we have not been able to achieve transparency of political funding. I thought his third sentence would be that we are going to enforce transparency but what he did was that he introduced electoral bonds which killed whatever transparency that existed,” said Mr. Quraishi, who served as Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) from July 2010 to June 2012.

He also asserted that the debate around the use of EVMs (electronic voting machines) was “totally unnecessary” and “ill-advised” and urged opposition parties to focus on other possible malpractices like the manipulation of electoral rolls.

“On the EVM controversy, I have said many times that the political parties which are questioning it are wasting their time. Recently I heard one or two political leaders questioning it and they belong to a party that won with the same EVMs hands down in Karnataka,” he said in an apparent reference to the Congress.

Asked about the proposal for simultaneous polls and a high-level panel headed by former president Ram Nath Kovind exploring its possibility, Mr. Quraishi said the matter has been debated for years and it has both pros and cons.

“I have written many articles, some of which have been included in the book, I have given both sides. There is no right or wrong answer,” he said.

There are many advantages of simultaneous elections like it cuts the cost of repeated elections. Also, repeated polls mean that the district administration is taken away from their normal duties for election duty, he pointed out.

“But most importantly what was not mentioned politically but I would like to mention is that during elections communalism, casteism and corruption peak and so if we are always in election mode these vices overtake the polity which is an unfortunate situation. So, perhaps the election once in five years is a better idea,” he said.

But on the downside, constitutionally it may not be possible because of the logic that if a state government falls in a year for whatever reasons, one cannot keep the state under President’s rule for four years, he said.

“Or vice versa if in Lok Sabha the government falls like the Vajpayee government fell in 13 days, what do you do?… you can’t keep the Lok Sabha going and can’t hold elections in the entire country,” Mr. Quraishi said.

Federalism requires that the state should follow its own course of polity and the way it is going is “okay”, he added.

Poor people want elections because there is a lot of employment opportunities created and the most important thing for poor people have is voting power, he said elaborating on why elections at regular intervals are good.

“Therefore it (simultaneous polls proposal) has pluses and minuses, and as the prime minister has been saying, there has to be a national consensus. So the debate which is going on, if a national consensus is achieved, nothing like it, but if it is not achieved, it should not be thrust on the people,” the former CEC said.

Asked about the freebies debate and the current CEC Rajiv Kumar’s remarks recently that freebies announced by political parties and state governments have “tadka” of populism, Quraishi said legally one cannot find fault with parties making such promises ahead of polls.

“It (freebies issue) had even gone up to the Supreme Court which could have declared it illegal, it did not, it could have called it a corrupt practice, it did not,” he said.

All it stated was that the Election Commission should come up with some guidelines, which is neither here nor there, he opined.

“The Election Commission came up with some perfunctory guidelines, I would say perfunctory, because they were asked by the Supreme Court, they had to do something, (so they said) ‘you should be careful making your promises and inform voters how you will raise money to fulfil them etc.’ But that is easier said than done,” Mr. Quraishi said.

But, legally it is a legitimate political activity and even the Supreme Court could not abolish it, he added.

On the model code violations in recent elections and the criticism of the EC being toothless on occasions, Mr. Quraishi said, “It happened because different incumbents have different styles. Over the last 70 years everyone’s style has been different. So sometimes the incumbents have been accused of soft pedalling and being soft on violations, others have come down heavily on violations.” “So, we expect that the present commission will show spine and will be strong and tough in taking swift and neutral action in the upcoming polls,” he said.

On the number of women members in Lok Sabha not being up to the mark, Mr. Quraishi said women have always scored better on winnability than men and hoped that the women’s reservation act would remedy the trend of low representation of women.

He also highlighted how very few Muslims made it to legislatures over the years with their numbers always being disproportionately low to their population.

“It is said their (Muslims) appeasement is taking place when in reality they are being ignored and discriminated against. See the data of the last 70 years, the number of Muslim MPs is much smaller than their population,” he said.

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