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Reform, Strengthen The Election Commission

For, a strengthened and empowered Election Commission strengthens Indian democracy at the grassroots level. This election season, India badly needs this.

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Some ten years ago, while working with another newspaper, I received a call from the then Leader of Opposition and seniormost BJP Leader, L K Advani. I went to meet him, and he told me that India must rethink EVMs, and get back to ballot papers. For what was at stake “was Indian democracy”. He told me that that even though there were no instances of EVM riggings, there were fears that “they could be manipulated”.

Current BJP spokesperson G V L Narasimha Rao, then a psephologist and an advisor to Adavni, even wrote a book, “Democracy at Risk! Can We trust our EVMs?” The argument was the same – “We must get back to the ballot papers”.

Adavni wrote a foreword for the book. Said Advani: “I personally regard it significant that Germany, technologically, one of the most advanced countries of the world, has become so wary of EVMs as to ban their use altogether. Many states in the USA have mandated that EVMs can be used only if they have a paper back-up. So manufacturers of electronic voting machines in the USA have developed a technology referred to as Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT)... Today 32 out of 50 states in the USA have passed laws making these VVPAT voting machines compulsory”.

Advani and the BJP joined forces with leaders like TDP’s N Chandrababu Naidu on the issue. Naidu has not given up his anti-EVM stance. As late as last week, he claimed that experts from Russia can hack EVMs “for a few crore rupees”.

Our EVMs are temper-proof. But every political party that loses in an election rants about the EVMs “being compromised”. EVM glitches don’t help. The Election Commission of India has not managed to convince the political class of the “foolproof nature of the EVMs”. This says something about this independent institution rather than the voting machines themselves.

Come to think of it, the Election Commission has lately come under the scanner like never before, with the Opposition routinely alleging that the EC is doing the ruling party’s bidding.

Many say the EC is akin to a toothless tiger with its Model Code of Conduct having no effect whatsoever on the wrongdoings of political parties. But an impartial or a fair election commissioner can go a long way in ensuring that the biggest democracy on the earth is served well, and served to the fullest.

To be fair to the Election Commission, most of the occupants of the Nirvachan Sadan are true to the Constitution – they uphold it in letter and spirit. 

There are some rotten apples though who bring a bad name to the entire institution. For instance, a former Election Commissioner was known for passing on election details to a political party in “loo-breaks” during closed-door meetings. Another Election Commissioner didn’t feel it prudent to consult the erudite EC legal advisor on a crucial issue of disqualification of Opposition legislators and took a decision which was seen in line with the ruling party at the Centre.

Retired bureaucrats are appointed as Election Commissioners by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. Little surprise then that they come across as sympathetic to the ruling dispensation.

This mechanism needs to be reworked. Advani had, at another point, advocated a collegium comprising of the Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India, Law Minister and Leaders of Opposition in both Houses of Parliament to appoint Election Commissioners. It’s time we seriously considered the proposal.

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