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Gopalaswami on poll process, Varun & Congress

April 21, 2009 23:18 IST

After an eventful tenure as the chief election commissioner, Needamangalam Gopalaswami retired on Monday. A former bureaucrat of the Gujarat cadre, he took on the ruling elite like few have done in past. He passed strictures against his colleague Navin Chawla, alleging bias towards the Congress and questioning his credibility.

He has also suggested President Pratibha Patil to look further into the issue of disqualification of Sonia Gandhi for accepting the 'Order of Leopold' from Belgium government.

As he leaves office, Gopalaswami's biggest contribution is coming in the form of new Election Commissioner V S Sampath, an officer known for his credibility and clean record.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was reportedly hell-bent on bringing in one more so-called "pro-Congress" bureaucrat in the poll panel, but Gopalaswami's crusade prevented the government from doing so.

Come May 15, Gopalaswami will leave New Delhi for Chennai. He says he doesn't know many people in New Delhi. He would have preferred to live in Gujarat where he worked a major part of his career, but he picked 39 Giri Road in Chennai -- because that is where his children live.

A day after his retirement -- a day without files and official hassles -- Sheela Bhatt caught up with the outgoing CEC.   

Not only political workers and mediapersons, but even common man seems to have been tired of the torturously long election that is divided into five phases. It has taken away the romance of Indian elections.

We have no problem if you want one day election provided no one cheats or no one attacks police personnel or polling personnel. We are not at all happy having arranged so many police personnel around for the election. Every state we go to tell us that we don't have faith in state police. They insist on force from the Centre. Let states stop demanding that and you have faith in local police and local polling officers then we can conduct election in one day through out India. We have no problem at all. The problem is with the polity.

In that case why can't elections be held on different dates but still in a short time-frame?

Impossible. There are 543 constituencies. All of them are asking for police from outside. If we have election on a single day, forget about police at some places at best we may have one home guard or gram rakshak dal. Even that may not be possible at few places. If politicians are ready then I am sure there will be suspicion of some hanky panky or booth capturing. You can't demand both.

You have the best insight into the electoral process. Keep your hand on your heart and give us the real picture of level of democracy of the entire exercise.

See, one good thing that is happening is that despite so many problems people turn up in big numbers. People have faith in democracy, otherwise you will not find 60-65% turnout. In some areas, even 80 percent of people come to vote. If people of  India don't have faith in democracy they would not come out and vote. People's faith is our strength. What are our weaknesses? It used to be booth capturing in earlier days. Now, that is not very much in evidence. We have managed to see that police force is posted and it is prevented. The use of money power to bribe the voters is rampant. But, you can't claim that EC should curb this. The election takes place once in five years. For four years and 10 months, the economy is generating black money. In the last two months they spend black money in election. If the candidate spends Rs 2.5 crore, instead of the Rs 25-lakh ceiling set by EC, I don't think he is doing any charity. It is clear that by spending Rs.2.5 crore, he thinks he can certainly take back Rs.2.5 crore or more if he gets elected. Unless, as the country, as a polity, we prevent him from doing so this question about use of money power is totally misplaced. What are the responsible political parties, parliamentarians, intellectuals are doing about it?  It's their responsibility to say that what is happening is wrong and let us try and control it.

You can't expect EC to do the job because our observers are on the ground for two months to 15 days only. Economy has prospered in the last five years and people who have become richer are spreading out. We will have to sit down and think about the solution to tackle money power in Indian election. The solution can't touch the election only, it should tackle entire economy.

The big picture has to be attended. We should think about how to monetize Indian economy so that every transaction takes place through cheques and so on and so forth. Much of the money that is being spent illegally in Indian elections is something that is being generated in the system.

We are skeptical about the announcements of assets of candidates in form of affidavit that EC accepts it blindly. Even Sonia Gandhi and L K Advani have got substantially more income, but people don't know how? What is their source of income?

Do you want everything to be done by others? Why is this information coming? It is to inform voters to decide whom to vote for. Second, the EC can't do more about it because if  EC ask candidates their source of income then it will take five years to conduct one election. Somebody will raise an issue, then I will have to do the inquiry.  

Someone will question my inquiry and I will go for further inquiry. How long it will take? It is not for the EC to get behind the affidavits. But, later citizens can always raise the issue that assets disclose while filing nominations is on false affidavit. The purpose to ask for affidavit is to enable citizens to ask the questions.

What is the imprint you are leaving behind in the office of EC? What are the micro issues that you have tackled?

There are many changes. We have introduced new kind of analysis of the electoral role- voters' list. Previously applications would come and it was disposed as the electoral role was prepared. Now, the health of electoral role is scrutinized through a series of checks and balances which we have prescribed. The number of people enrolled, deleted, included, their age group, their gender is compared to the population of that area is all considered. If any group is underrepresented we look for remedy. How to enroll particular age group in the area is planned. Now, we are doing through statistical analysis of the voters' role through computer-fed data. Earlier it was not done. We have prescribed a certain drill as information comes to us. While we look at state figures, the State CEOs look at the district figures. And, district chiefs look at polling station level. We monitor increase or decrease in particular state, district and even in polling station.

If some polling stations reveal that the number of women voters is abnormally low then we take action to find out if it is deliberate. In industrial area it is normal to find men to women ratio somewhat skewed. In normal area it should be similar to population ration of that area. Now district offices are aware that EC will question them. We have created a hierarchy of checking. There was no accountability previously. Now, no lower rank officer can say that he has checked 10 percent or so. We want checking at the polling station level. I repeat, everything is now computerized. Another major thing that changed in my tenure is the photo ID card. Barring Nagaland, Manipur and Assam, the rest of the country we have covered, including Jammu and Kashmir. In Manipur and Nagaland, a kind of political opposition is there while in Assam because of the migrants issue there is an opposition. The chances of impersonation have been brought down considerably. Almost 80 percent of Indian voters have been photographed. We took up the project tin 2006 and by 2009 we have done a good job of it.

We have come across defective roll and we have corrected it. One regret I have is that duplicate names are still there. I won't be surprised if duplicate names are running around some 3-5 percent of the electorate roll. That will require little more time. I also regret that for the service people we could organize voting as well as we should. I also could not push amendment against criminals  contesting eleciton. The matter is before parliamentary committee. Some MPs doubt that if charge-sheeted people are not allowed to contest, then it will enthuse people to float bogus FIRs to prevent people from contesting.  

That means some 5 crore or more people have two ID cards?

It is not as simple as that. What happens is that, let us say, people of east Uttar Pradesh go for job to western UP or in Mumbai or Delhi. In new places, also they take ration card and some take it for other purposes like to open bank account. This duplication needs to be avoided. If the poll is on one day all over country, this duplication does not matter because you cannot travel at two places so quickly. But in multi-phase polling, there is a possibility. Every state has this problem. In states like Gujarat, they register in the new place and in home state political workers have temptation to do bogus voting for these absent workers.

The EC has been criticized for handling Naxal areas during the poll.

I have already said in other interviews that the criticism is totally misplaced. Between two phases, you need 15-20 days to move forces. It is impossible to do within the ambit. This time we took only 124 constituencies compared to 141 in 2004. What is the guarantee that two phases would have meant less violence? 

EC and political parties play cat and mouse game. Tell us what is the modus operandi still in to dodge the rules.

By and large, organized booth capturing is dying out. Bogus voting again has come down due to the introduction of photo ID card. Duplicate cards problem is mainly in bordering areas of cities where some people have their name in panchayat also and in city list also.

You have said in your letter to President Patil that Navin Chawla , now CEC , is a biased man. The President has rejected your suggestion. Didn't you feel humiliated? When your contention was rejected publicly, many people thought you may resign.

Why? One of my senior colleagues once told me not to consider someone else's duty is your right. If you expect a particular thing to be done by somebody and if he doesn't do it then you will feel bad about it. But, why should you? You have done your duty let them do what they consider their duty. Let it be left at that point. The government's stance was totally expected.

Before you retired you have sent your opinion along with other ECs regarding Sonia Gandhi's award from Belgium. It's said that you have requested President to review the issue.

Wait till the order comes. Then you will understand the entire issue. I have never said that. When the President takes a stand, the respective opinion of Commissioners will be appended to the order. Let us wait.

Are you feeling uncomfortable that Congressmen think that you are close to BJP?

Not at all. Absolutely, not at all. I am what I stand for. It does not bother me who thinks what. As far as my conscience is clear why should I bother about what other people say?  Look, if on my assessment if particular order has to be given in a particular way I will do it irrespective of personalities. I don't look at faces, I look at facts.

What about Varun Gandhi issued? Many people felt that you crossed the limit. You should have done the checking of tapes, at least.

You see the tape and apparently on the face of it , it was clear that what he meant. I think you should see the entire CD. So many things are there which is bad. Utterances against particular community were bad. What do you choose out of it? Bad is bad. What we saw doesn't seem to be doctored at all. According to you we should have checked the tape before we say something. After that every little fellow will say something and then say that check my CD. So we will end up checking the CD and come out with result after 16 May and then also you will find fault with us. This is the problem with us. Kiya to kyun kiya, nahin kiya to kyun nahin kiya?

What next?

I have an offer from former Chief Election Commissioner J M Lyngdoh to join his organization which provides assistance for electoral matters. I have said that CEC and EC should not accept any offer from government after retirement and they should be barred by law. I will engage myself in propagation of Sanskrit and enjoy my retirement.