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MANOHAR SINGH GILL served as the Chief Election Commissioner of India from 1996 to 2001. His major achievement has been the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines which curbed malpractices to a large extent. He has also been honoured with the Padma Vibhushan.

In an exclusive interview with NAVANK SHEKHAR MISHRA, Gill speaks about electoral reforms and how things can be made better. Excerpts:

You were the CEC for so many years and you also worked as a member of the Election Commission. What were the highlights of that period?

In a country with a population of more than 100 crores and with a voter list of over 60 crores, where there are so many social and politically contentious issues, and in a democracy with its own limitations, we tried our best to maintain it and ensured that the electoral process keeps running in order. I have seen that individual changes soon fade out but the changes in the system remain. During the last assembly elections in Assam, Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, we established Made in India EVMs and I had made sure that no voter votes without identification. We have made changes in the system and regulations so that everything works well in the long term. We are connected with all the districts during polls and we are informed about every moment to moment activity. We have worked on computerising the system and we have computerised a voter list of 63 crore voters which is a big achievement. I am proud and happy about these accomplishments.

Despite electoral reforms, names of a lot of Bangladeshis have entered in the voter list. How do you think this problem can be dealt with?

The Election Commission has been working to resolve this problem. I saw the Commission advertising in newspapers on a massive scale telling voters to check the revised voter lists. We need to change some regulations. The Commission has made some changes and some changes need to be made in the Representation of the People Act. I believe that a transparent, clean, up-to-date and easily available electoral role can become a milestone for a democracy. We have been working on it. I did it during my tenure and my colleagues are now taking care of it.

The Election Commission office in New Delhi. Photo: Anil Shakya
The Election Commission office in New Delhi. Photo: Anil Shakya

You had taken the matter of state funding further. What do you have to say about that?

I worked with Indrajit Gupta’s sub-committee on this issue. The all-party meeting came up with a few suggestions but I don’t think they would really be of any help. The report suggested measures like giving free diesel, petrol or loudspeakers to the candidates. These things are nominal and it’s tough to keep such accounts, which would lead to further confusion and both the Election Commission and political parties will be subjected to questioning. I have a different take on state funding. Let’s say that even if Rs 500 crore is distributed among political parties on the basis of some formula, even then they will keep adding black economy which is estimated to be at 50-60 percent right now. I think the political parties need to think about the issue seriously and with a long-term approach. I also want the power of money to be curtailed because honest candidates find it hard to contest for elections because of the lack of money. We need to fix our existing financial system too. The Commission had, in 1998, given state funding by giving space to political parties from various states on television and All India Radio.

We can follow the Bangladesh model where the elected government steps down once the EC declares elections and it is the governor who takes on the state.

Candidates often spend way more in campaigning than the prescribed limit of Rs 15 lakh for each candidate. What can be done to prevent this problem?

Section 77 of the Representation of the People Act states that there has to be a limit on expenditure during campaigning but unfortunately, a proviso was later added to it, according to which, a candidate’s friends and family members could contribute money for his campaign which will not be accounted under the spending limit. This opened a lot of backdoors.

The Election Commission has been raising its voice against the proviso and even the SC has shown its discontent on this matter.

Our proposal was and will always be that a reasonable limit should be set which could be revised from time-to-time and it should be checked effectively. There should be no loopholes. This is in the hands of parliament now and it can easily do so by removing the proviso. Till then, the mission will be incomplete.

The presence of criminals or candidates with a criminal background is on the rise. How can we stop this?

This is a very serious and worrying issue. Back in the fifties and sixties, things were different, it was a time of idealist candidates but now everyone is greedy for power. This has to stop, or else we will continue conducting polls but the spirit of democracy would be killed. This is a problem which only the political parties can solve by not giving tickets to candidates with a criminal background. You can’t expect to continue breaking the rules and then expect the EC to do policing later. That needs to stop.

The rise of criminals in politics will also lead to booth capturing. How do you think we can stop that?

We need to bring some changes in the way political parties work. We need to change their attitude and the way they are regulated. We could follow the Germany model where all the political parties have a mutual consensus about not capturing booths of other parties. When a party, which is in power, is contesting elections to come back to power, it acts both as the government and the candidate. In such a scenario, it’s easy to get the top officers and bureaucrats to work for you. To get rid of this problem, we can follow the Bangladesh model where the elected government steps down once the EC declares elections and it is the governor who takes over the state. The time has come when even posts like the governor and other high constitutional positions should be filled by the present government after taking help from the opposition so that everyone trusts the governor and bureaucrats and things will fall in place.

Back in the fifties and sixties, things were different, it was the time of idealist candidates but now everyone is greedy for power.

You introduced the concept of proxy voting. How is it helping?

I come from an army background. I wanted army officers and soldiers to be able to cast their vote from the location they are posted at. Since the postal ballots don’t reach Siachin from Kerala, the army personnel can’t vote. Even though proxy vote is not the best thing and the ideal situation would be that the solider himself goes to cast his vote, I took the idea of proxy voting from foreign countries. I even formed a committee on it. But I think, if a way can’t be figured out, then they can give their relatives the power to cast the vote for them as per their directions.

The Women’s Reservation Bill has been hanging fire in parliament for quite some time now…

This problem is directly linked with political parties and should not be looked at as a constitutional problem. If the political parties themselves give women their share of tickets they deserve, then there won’t be any issue in the first place. But, if they don’t, then a simple provision can be added to the Representation of the People Act and a sub-section can be made stating that if you believe in the EC and if you use the EC’s privileges, then you must respect the EC by giving a certain percent of tickets to women candidates.

How can the common public reach the Election Commission with complaints and grievances?

The Commission’s telephone and doors are always open for the common man. I have full faith in the Commission and my former colleagues who are now running it effectively. I have seen that the Commission has also suspended officers, including a collector whenever there has been a mistake in the revision of electoral roles. This has sent down a message to Punjab and Uttar Pradesh that the Commission won’t spare anyone. I was still a lenient Election Commissioner but my successor is a strict man and political parties and other officers need to keep that in mind.

Since you have shown interest in sports, what is your comment on the state of sports in the country?

The state of sports is sad in the country and I don’t think there will be a next Milkha Singh because all the sports, except cricket, go unnoticed and there is no money, no sponsors and no one to watch them. We need to change the overall policy to improve the condition of sports in the country and we need to focus on the games which Indians can afford to play like football and athletics which do not require expensive equipment.

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