Saturday, February 12, 2011

National Election Watch - Discussion on Electoral integrity

Second session was held to discuss the √Člectoral Integrity - A shared responsbility'.  The session was chaired by Dr S Y Quraishi (Chief Election Commissioner of India) and co-chaired by Mr N Gopalaswamy (Former Chief Election Commissioner of India)

Reported by T P Kurian, Arun Sudarsan, Binny Alexander

Mr N Gopalaswamy made opening remarks

 Media exposes. It also indulges in paid news. Less than 10 percent of illegal cash transactions in elections are exposed. Elections are a mammoth affair. We hope these six presentations cover the issue adequately and give us enough to ponder upon.

The first panelist is NL Rajah, Senior Advocate. He will be speaking on Constitutional and Legal Imperatives.

This government has begun the process of consultation and dialogue which will hopefully lead to reform. The rules of the game need to be changed so that the players change. The word 'act' as a noun is easy to achieve in India. As a verb, it is near impossible.
26 proposals sent by the ECI have not been acted upon by the government for more than a decade.
6 major issues that plague the electoral system. Some of these are:

- Decriminalisation of the electoral process: six committees already constituted to look into the matter. various civil society organisations also have gotten in the act. However, reform is slow.
Conviction of accused criminals takes years. In a country where everyone is guilty until proven innocent, criminals spend years at large in politics while waiting for the slow wheels of justice to turn. People in jail for being accused on criminal charges should be allowed to vote. If one is innocent until proven guilty this is implicit, and a failure to allow unconvicted prisioners the right to vote is a gross violation of our right to be considered innocent until proven guilty

- Negative or neutral vote. People demanding the introduction of negative or neutral vot. Ganesh Goswami report of 1990 concludes that the negative and neutral vote serves no purpose. However it is time to re-open this issue and reconsider the efficacy of such a measure. A case ispending in the Supreme court on this issue. Parties will search for the right/good candidate if the negative vote is introduced.

- Rule making power of the ECI. It is recommended that power should be given to the ECI to make rules regarding the election procedure. Do not refuse to confer to the CEC the power to make rules regarding election. Let him be empowered to expediently make rules regarding his domain.

The second panelist is P.K.Dash, DG,EC. He speaks on Election Commission measures to combat money-power.

We are in an era of coloured money. Black money, gray money.Money power is the oxygen of multi-party democracy. It is not without its cons, though.

"However deep and dense the darkness, the lamp has never accepted defeat." With this attitude one hopes to contest the insidious power of money in the forthcoming elections.
Risks of money power- uneven playing field, political exclusion, campaign debt, tainted governance.
One can be imprisoned for a year for distributing liquor and cash with a view to influence voters.
Candidates must keep true and accurate records of election expenses. Failing this, the candidate is liable to be disqualified from contesting for three years.
There exists a ceiling on expenditure for contesting candidates, but not for the political party.
Mechanisms for monitoring money in elections:
-Income tax dept. authorised to keep watch on airports, pawn brokers
- All expenses to be made through cheque. This is merely an appeal, not law.
- Call centre and complaint monitoring mechanism for each district.
-Flying squads under each police station to act immediately upon complaints.
-Static surveillance teams deployed on the roads.
- Expenditure Observers for each district
- Video surveillance teams in each constituency to record all public events and expenses related to these.
- Shadow Observation Register to record accounts
-Paid news is a disease. Media certifying teams to go through media advertising.
-Banks will be asked to report suspicious withdrawal of cash.

Individuals who require any of the information relating to the financial dealings which have been documented will be allowed to access the information.

Naresh Gupta, Former Chief Electoral Officer of Tamil Nadu now speaks on An Effective State Election Machinery

Mr. Gupta describes the processes and details that go into the making of a fair and successful election.  To strengthen the process, deploy micro-observers under the observers of the ECI. They have to be trained properly under the ECI observers. All the officers should work under the control and superintendence of the ECI. Year-round updating of Electoral processes. Electoral roll verification can be carried out in Public-Private-Parternship model.

The moderator adds that NGOs could be used as micro- observers.

Sam Rajappa, Senior Journalist chimes in with what he considers the role of media is in ensuring fair elections.

It is unrealistic to expect the media to be free of corruption. The independence of the press is violated by paid news and biased reports that seem to have infiltrated the formal structure of certain large media companies. Advertisements masquerading as news have flooded the media in recent times. The Andhra Pradesh union of journalists have estimated the market for paid news at between 300 and 400 crores.

A report on the issue was submitted to the press council and is under review. The primary victim of this fraud is the lay person who is unable to distinguish paid news from unbiased reportage. Some media houses even boast of their revenue from this spurious source with no shame. One media house has set up a media net which gives you the rates for stories, articles etc. and pass off these doctored articles as genuine news.

Positive views of voters, glossed over negative commentary, positive editorials and the like consitute the majority of this paid news. Paid news is not the only aberration in the media. Here are a couple of personal experiences. In the 1982 election in AP, there was a great deal of interest at the national level in the election. A senior official was sent to cover the election. He was offered a car, a guide and a hotel. The tab for all this was covered by the political party. Such a system compromises journalistic integrity. Reports produced under such circumstances tend to be at variance with unbiased reportage on the same issue.
Journalists are also courted by companies with offers of free liquor, coupons and the like. In such a climate, the truth becomes hazy and hard to discern.

Mr Madhav Rao, Former Chief Secretary tales about the Role of Government Servants

Free and fair elections depend on a good voter's list, the role of money and muscle power and a good election mechanism.
The voters list should be linked up with the UID and the postal office.
Money power is yet to be tackled. Government servants are literally 'government servants' as opposed to public servants.

Professor Trilochan speaks on 'Youth and Civil Society'

Ask not what the Election Machinery can do, but what we as the Civil Society can do. On a lighter note, he points to the 'young' members of the panel. The need to use technology. People have begun to understand the influence of money during elections. The link between misuse of money and bad governance should be clearly understood by the voting population. Our task as the civil society organisations is to work with the great people of India to curb the money power.

Questions from the audience - Answered by the Panelists 

S Y Quraishi: ECI has recommended to the GoI to include the 'none-of-the-above' button in the EVM. Please concentrate energy on positive campaigning. As for the legal position stands, the candidate with the most number of votes will win irrespective of the number of votes being polled in the 'none-of-the-above' button. Hence, he is sceptical of the effectiveness of the recommendation.

Political parties are public authorities. Therefore they should come under the purview of the Right to Information Act (RTI).

The reality of India is that 2-party system might not work in India because the regional parties are very strong in India. Coalition government has become the order of the day.

On a question of reserving seats for farmers, the CEC feels it is powerless to make such law though it is a relevant issue.

Biometric identification is a good idea. Linking it with the EVMs will reduce frauds.

The EVMs are stand-alone machine without Operating System which makes it un-hackable. EVM has one-time-programmeable chip which cannot be tampered with. ECI is not afraid of any debate on the issue.

Paper trail, in the form of receipts cannot be given to the voters as it will violate the secrecy of the process. This can even endager their lives.

Digital machines which has low probability of damages are more reliable than mechanical device.

On compulsory voting - It is not desirable, not possible, because compulsion and democracy don't go together. The answer here is voter education.

Youth Unite for Voter Awareness (YUVA): The Voter Awareness wing of ECI. Will be consolidated further.

Qualification for candidates? Illiterate can be wise. Debatable issue. ECI will remain neutral.

A hostelite can choose to vote either in the consituency where he is staying or his native constituency.

'Marriage parties' without the groom or bride conducted during election time.

Introducing ceiling on the expenses made by political parties being considered.

ECI looking for legal basis to prosecute candidates using paid news as an election campaign strategy since it includes an element of deceit. 

End of Floor Interaction.


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