Politics

A Lot More Than EVMs on the Table for EC All-Party Meeting

Among the issues on the agenda for the May 12 meeting are proposals to make bribery a cognisable offence and to allow disqualification of candidates even before conviction in serious offences.

Chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: While many are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the May 12 meeting called by the Election Commission (EC) to discuss the issue of electronic voting machine (EVM) tampering, the panel is using this opportunity to also bring to the table proposals to make bribery in elections a cognisable offence and seek disqualification of those who have been chargesheeted, and not necessarily convicted, in criminal offences carrying a jail term of five years or more.

Leaders of seven national parties and 48 recognised state parties have been invited to the meeting to be held at the Constitution Club.

The meeting had initially been planned to address the doubts and concerns raised by various political parties, particularly after the assembly election results were announced in March. It now turns out that while the issue of EVM tampering will be discussed with the parties and their suggestions invited, this will not be the main item on the agenda.

Among the political leaders invited are Aam Aadmi Party convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who had – after the issue was first raised by Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati – not only backed the issue of EVM tampering after a humiliating defeat in the Punjab elections, but had on May 9 also called a special session of Delhi assembly where MLA Saurabh Bharadwaj apparently demonstrated how EVMs could be tampered with.

Kejriwal, who is an engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, had also claimed that in just 90 seconds an EVM can be tampered with by changing its motherboard. However, the EC had termed the demonstration in the Delhi assembly a “so called demonstration of tampering” stating that “it is common sense that gadgets other than EC EVMs can be programmed to perform in a predetermined way, but it simply cannot be implied that EC EVMs will behave in the same manner because the EC EVMs are technically secured and function under an elaborate administrative and security protocol.”

Make bribery a cognisable offence

The EC has placed a proposal to make bribery a cognisable offence on the agenda for the all-party meeting. It said “the phenomenon of bribing of voters with money and other goods is becoming a serious menace in elections” but while sections 171E and 171F of the IPC provide for a punishment of imprisonment of up to one year or fine or both, these offences are still non-cognisable.

Stating that “incidents of bribery of electors are being detected in many places”, the commission said “experience on the ground has shown that the law enforcing authorities feel handicapped in apprehending the culprits of bribery because they cannot proceed without a warrant issued by a competent magistrate under section 200 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973.”

Therefore, the EC wants the law to be amended to make the penal provisions in this regard more stringent and to make them act as a “strong deterrent”.

The EC, which had in 2012 recommended that the home ministry “amend the existing law to make bribery during elections [both cash and kind] a cognisable offence, enabling police to arrest the violators without a warrant and to enhance the punishment up to two years,” said the ministry has now conveyed to it that it has initiated the process to amend sections 171B and 171E of the Code of Criminal Procedure for the same.

The EC will also be informing the all-party meeting that there is a proposal to insert a new section, 58B, in the Representation of People Act (RP Act) to deal with cases of bribery of electors. Since in two cases in 2016 and one case in 2017 the commission had to resort to its plenary powers under Article 324 to cancel the elections on account of large-scale incidents of bribery, and since in the RP Act there is no specific provision to deal with cases of bribery of electors, it has proposed that a new section 58B be introduced to enable it to take “appropriate action, including countermanding of election, in the event of incidents of bribery of electors”.

The EC will also be bringing a “proposal for disqualification on framing of charges for the offence of bribery in elections”. As of now, Section 8 of the RP Act, 1951, provides for disqualification on conviction for the offences mentioned in sub-sections (1), (2) and (3) of that section.

Disqualification needed before conviction in serious offences

However, in order to address the issue of criminalisation of politics, the commission has been recommending disqualification even prior to conviction by a court in the case of serious offences. “The proposal made by the commission in this regard is that for offences punishable by imprisonment of five years or more for a case registered at least six months earlier, disqualification should commence from the stage the charges are framed by the court. The commission is of the considered view that such a restriction on individual rights would be in larger public interest and will add to the sanctity of the August houses of parliament and state legislature,” the agenda for the meeting states.

Treat bribery as serious offence

While the above proposal is still pending consideration, the commission said on January 2 that it had made a further proposal concerning bribery and undue influence (under sections 171B and 171C of IPC). Although punishment for these offences is imprisonment up to one year (and hence not covered in the earlier proposal mentioned above), considering the serious implications of the offences in the conduct of free and fair elections, a person accused of such offences should face disqualification from the time charges are framed by the court.

Transparency in funding of political parties

Another an important item on the agenda of the all-party meeting would be the proposal for enhancing transparency in political parties’ funding. The commission has proposed that donations in cash should not exceed Rs 20 crore or 20% of the total donations in a year, whichever is less. For donations received in cash, it has proposed that income tax exemption under Section 13A of the Income Tax Act be restricted to Rs 20 crore or 20% of the total donation received by the party, whichever is less.

The commission has also demanded that anonymous donations above Rs 2,000 should be prohibited and that there should be no income tax exemption for cash donations of over Rs 2,000. However, transparency rights activists believe that such a move has no meaning as political parties are known to break bigger anonymous donations into smaller amounts to avoid tracking.

The commission also wants dedicated bank accounts for election expenses of candidates and for transactions to be through cheques or electronic means in case a particular expense excees Rs 2,000 during elections.

Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail to get a boost

The commission will also be apprising the parties that it would be deploying the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) with EVMs in a phased manner. “VVPAT system will generate paper slips for each vote cast on the EVM. All the paper slips are not counted though. As per the provisions of the rules (Rule 56D of the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961), if a candidate or his agent makes a request for counting the papers slips of any polling station or polling stations, the returning officer decides the request as per the guidelines issued by the commission,” the agenda says

Stating that some suggestions have been made to revisit the rules regarding counting of paper slips from the VVPAT system, political parties will be urged to give their views in this regard.