Populist announcements during the budget this year could influence the elections which have been scheduled soon after, in five states, including Uttar Pradesh.
M.K. Venu, founding editor at The Wire speaks to S.Y. Quraishi, former chief election commissioner, who during his time, saw a lot of reforms in the way elections are held in India.
Let me kick off with the question that is occupying everybody at this moment — elections in five states — but coming immediately after the budget. Now the opposition is raising a lot of questions about such huge elections – nearly one-fifth of the population, if you take UP as the big one, happening just after the budget. Do you sense that there is something not quite right in this? In the past have elections happened immediately after the budget?
Yes, in the past elections have happened and one instance I’m able to recall immediately is 2008 when three northeastern states went to poll on March 7 and 8 – Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya. Obviously the budget would have come out on 28. I was in the election commission then as a member, so I don’t recall any debate and discussion.
Maybe because they’re much smaller states and not so significant.
No, actually smaller and insignificant we take very seriously. Because everybody counts, even single voter counts. And, the fact that the people have won in lots with just one vote, to say that small state or very few people is not a good argument in a democracy.
Okay, so it’s not a good argument. So tell me how do you view UP since it is so hotly contested and it’s being built as a mini general election. Do you think the government, when it presents the budget, should exercise self restraint and not announce big populist welfare programs? Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already announced some of it on December 31. What is your view on that?
I do feel that the government is very sensitive. The government is fully aware of the sensitivity. The government knows and should know that the model code needs to be observed in letter and spirit and even the slightest violation invites a lot of criticism and trouble in the media and public protest. So I hope the government being aware of this will make sure that the populist announcement of the budget is kept on hold. In any case, we presume that the best, the most populist and the most important announcements have already been made by the prime minister. That makes the job easy because in the budget, if the same announcements are made and figures and amount is put into those announcements, the government will always take the view and rightly, that there is nothing new because old things are allowed. It’s only new announcements that are not allowed.
So you’re saying that suppose the government hypothetically announces a huge farm loan waiver. That, in your view, will violate the spirit of the model code of conduct?
Yes, I should think so, because you know a happy voter suddenly changes his mind. Or maybe even tax is off, income tax relief and even to me, as a pensioner if there is some relief, it will create a feel-good factor.
It’ll impact the voters. So, are you suggesting that even tax cuts they should hold and do it later?
Yes, because I personally don’t see that. After all, in the past also there has been voter account and the rail budget, main budget comes later. But anything which can be distantly construed as populist and which can influence the voters and which will put government in the dark because surely the opposition will complain and the government of the day will be called to the election commission. There will be quasi-judicial proceedings which have happened in the past. If you recall, once the law minister at that point, five years ago, I was in the office, the law minister made some announcement in the election for increasing some reservation. BJP complained and the top lawyers of the country appeared on both sides and finally we found that the complaint was justified and we censured the minister. The censured don’t even have an appeal. Here the law minister of the land is censured because the BJP pointed out a violation of the model code.
So this could happen again if populist announcements are made in the budget?
Yes, surely. Already the opposition, they are up in arms. They will surely complain and the same procedure which was followed then will be followed in the reverse. Now the boot will be on the other leg.
There is already a precedent in terms of the election commission already having moved against such populist announcements just before the elections during the budget, right?
Yes, right. In fact, in our time in 2012, the same set of five states were going to the poll and we had a great dilemma because we had a very tight schedule. We wanted to hold elections not before January because December will mean previous year’s electoral roll. And, we have to finish the polls normally by end of February because the month of March is kept out of elections because of the examination of children all over the country. And we wanted to finish it by February 27. Fortunately, the government announced that the budget will be on March 16. It came to us as a huge relief because one or two phases were falling after February 28.
But here everything immediately starts after the budget.
Yes, that actually accentuates the problem.
I think this scale of elections affecting the size of the population immediately after the budget hasn’t happened. Although, as you said in 2008 maybe just three Northeastern states, but populations being affected on this scale hasn’t happened.
Yes, also because we heard that the government is planning to advance the budget from February 28 to February 1, which has never happened before.
They could have actually postponed it rather than advance it.
Yes, I really don’t know whether that’s the final decision or whether that’s just the thinking. That complicates the thing even more because as it is, for a phase or two, we had to do a bit of a tightrope walk. Here, the entire election will be after the budget.
So you’re saying that if they do announce the budget on first February, it’s up to the government to then voluntarily observe norms of good governance and not come up with big populist announcements?
Yes, because we must remember the Model Code of Conduct is not a law, it’s a gift to the nation by the political parties themselves.
They must observe something they themselves have accepted historically.
Over the period of time it has assumed the dimension of a moral code. It’s a Model Code of Conduct but now people consider it to be a moral code. So the moral authority of the model code is very important. All political parties know that and should be aware of it. But I would like to give one very interesting example from BJP itself. It was again in 2012. There’s a by-election going on in Goa which Manohar Parrikar, BJP chief minister, was in power and in the middle of the election we heard that one BJP candidate is being made a minister. We thought that this will give an extra advantage to the candidate so I sent a message from our CEO to the chief minister that you should just keep it in mind that this may disturb the level playing field. Next day he called me up and very angrily he said, “Mr Quraishi, this is my constitutional right to appoint anyone, anytime as a minister.” I said, “Sir, you are 100% right. It is absolutely your constitutional right. I was just pointing out the moral authority of the model code.” And I was so happy when he postponed his decision and even came out with a beautiful statement, “I am sacrificing, surrendering my constitutional right on account of the moral authority of the model code.” Now that was a standard that was set up by a leader which I think should be an example.
It was even more pleasant particularly because it came soon after the law minister incident – when the law minister was hauled up for violating the model code in both letter and spirit.
Coming to the broader issue of funding of elections, funding reforms. You have been very vocal on election funding reforms. And, in the context of demonetisation there is a huge sentiment in people that if you’re asking the poor people or the less well off, the aam janta to come clean on their sources of money, why shouldn’t political parties completely be transparent on how they are being funded? And this toxic rule where contributions upto Rs 20,000 by individuals that need not have names disclosed is the biggest benami framework which political parties use – shouldn’t these be done away with? Shouldn’t Prime Minister Modi voluntarily announce that ‘Yes, we are doing away with this non transparent framework.’
I think you have raised quite a number of issues within the subject of political finance. It is true that electoral corruption is the root cause of corruption in the country and creates the ecosystem for black money because you spend crores of rupees, mostly in black, and then after you come to power you start collecting because you have to refund. So that is how the whole vicious cycle of corruption begins. And what are the reasons? There are several. Many parliamentary committees, parliamentarians, parties have suggested that there should be state funding of elections.
But in any case, why should political parties directly accept money from corporate houses? That’s when the quid pro quo develops.
Yes, there are two or three issues there. One, that if there is state funding then obviously private collection has to stop. And accounts will have to be audited.
But if it’s done, it has to be done through the government or the election commission.
Yes, because you know what can happen is the corporates can donate to the election fund which can be administered by the election commissioner or by any independent authority because it will only be an arithmetical exercise. I have given a formulation: no funding of elections but funding of political parties for sure. Because without political parties you can’t run a democracy. And how will it work?
I said for every vote that you get, you get Rs 100. Last general election, fifty-five crores was forecast. At Rs 100, Rs 5,500 crores we can give to a political party. Now this will compensate the Rs 4,500 crores or so which they have shown as their collection altogether in five years. So after all the arm twisting, illegal and extra-legal measures, if you’re able to only raise Rs 4,500 crores, we give you Rs 5,500 crores, but then you cannot look at private funding at all.
Absolutely yes. And no political party, even now, is clearly telling us what they have done with their Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 notes whereas the people of India are depositing it in the banks.
Yes, if I may come back to that because that is the other issue. Personally, I’m very happy that the prime minister is for the first time talking about electoral reform.
But he’s not committing given that he is acting as an evangelist against black money. Why shouldn’t he say that BJP is the first to take these decisions?
I think he’s moving in that direction. If you see the last five-six months, every action is moving in that direction. Obviously, if he’s talking of political funding reform, which I only heard last night – so I’m sure something will come out of it. And let there be a national debate on this. Even my formulation, which I have mentioned many times in the press and conferences – I’m sure it can also be discussed. And there is a formula, 60-70% of European countries have funding of political party, not of the election because it is auditable, because you can’t fudge your vote. Every vote we give you Rs 100.
Absolutely. So Quraishi sahib we have some questions coming from viewers. There is one from Gnanashanmugam Subramanian: is there any special arrangement to be made in the forthcoming five state elections to monitor the political parties and leaders who seek votes on basis of caste and religion?
The context is the Supreme Court’s recent judgment. So, it is possible to monitor such things? What action could be taken if it is found that they sought votes on the basis of caste and religion? What do you have to say to that?
You know, the Supreme Court judgment in that way is nothing new. It is part of the law from 1951. Representation of People’s Act, Section 123:3, which describes the current practices. One of the current practices is any appeal to voters in the name of caste and religion, and the election commission is very alert to that. Very often suo moto, when it sees a violation it gives a notice under the model code and also files an FIR. But in any case opposition parties are always vigilant. Our best information comes from the opposition. Natural watchdogs are the opposition. They immediately get back to the election commission and notice is issued and quasi judicial proceedings decide. An FIR is filed where unfortunately implementation is poor because an FIR means it goes into the judicial domain. When the FIR will be investigated and a charge sheet will be filed and how long it will take in the court, we really don’t know. That is very disappointing.
Another question from Arun Emmadi. He is asking you to suggest new ideas for strict enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct, number one. And number two, he’s asking what are the consequences if a contender asks for votes in the name of caste and religion. That of course, you’ve answered. So any new idea of stricter enforcement of Model Code of Conduct? You talked about it acting as a moral authority but any other ideas?
No, already you know we set up Model Code of Conduct watchdog teams everywhere. Even to see whether something is being violated, some hate speech or excess expenditure — all that is being monitored. Plus, as I said, opposition parties are very alert and they bring it to our notice. Media is alert. In fact, one very important case was started by us on a media report against Mr. (Varun) Gandhi who made some hate speech. It was shown on CNN IBN. Rajdeep Sardesai called me and said “Have you seen that news?” I said, “No.” He said, “I’ll send you the CD”, and that is how the proceedings started.
Well, since you spoke about hate speech, we’ve also had hate speeches coming from those who practice majoritarian politics. So has the election commission, I’m sure and has also warned people on that count – you know, communal statements, sharp communal statements coming from leaders during campaigns?
Yes. Number one, leaders know all that. Because the model code is their own creation. The Model Code of Conduct has detailed out all these things. And the election commission also, as a matter of extra precaution, sometimes writes to the political parties in advance drawing attention to those clauses so that inadvertently they do not violate the model code. Mostly political parties respect it, which is why you’ll find elections to be much, much cleaner now than it used to be. There are hardly any personal attacks and hardly any hate speech. If there is, it becomes big news and acts a deterrent on others. By and large, our system is working pretty well and it requires the vigilance of opposition parties, the media, the people, and we have 24×7 complaint recording mechanism and our MCC teams are alert and take prompt action.
There is one issue Mr Quraishi which has troubled political parties, specially the opposition parties, when you phase out elections, when you stretch it out so long like seven phases in UP, then it creates self-fulfilling expectations. In the first two phases some party does well. These pollsters, although they are not allowed to reveal what the polls say, by word of mouth you know things go around. So and so party has done well then it impacts the third phase, fourth phase, so is there any way of dealing with this? This self-fulfilling expectation that they have created in a widely spread out election?
Holding of elections in the phases, indeed has many problems. First of all, for a prolonged period, normal activity gets suspended. A new announcement, and government activity gets suspended for sure. And in the context of the new media explosion, rumors go all over. It must be influencing subsequent phases. All those problems are genuine and legitimate but we have to weigh them against an even bigger problem. The biggest problem is the loss of lives. We know historically, you know historically that during elections there will be violence and many people will get killed. Even one loss of life is not acceptable, which is why from a security point of view it is beneficial to phase it out. That is why every political party demands that we bring central paramilitary forces to the election because local police has lots of connections and it can be influenced and pressurised. Central forces are not subjected to any influence. Central forces incidentally included armed police of a state. But imagine the Punjab police going to Tamil Nadu, they will not even understand the language. The same police, which is not even trusted within the state goes outside, it is neutral and fine and since paramilitary forces are limited so whatever number we are able to get out of the home ministry we circulate, we rotate from one phase to the other. That’s how the phases are decided. So the trade off is very serious and it is for people to choose.