We'll act against anybody who tries to disrupt peace during polls: Nasim Zaidi
Five states of Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry go to polls in April and May. The problems of excessive use of money power, paid news, violation of code of conduct have marred previous elections. In states like Assam, where there are complaints of a large number of migrants illegally entering from Bangladesh, there is a peculiar issue of doubtful voters whose voting rights have been suspended.
Yet again, the Election Commission of India is under tremendous pressure to ensure that the process is fair and peaceful. Catch spoke to the Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi to seek answers to some of these issues.
Excerpts from the conversation:
What was the reason to plan the elections in such a manner that West Bengal and Assam are staggered in 6 and 2 phases respectively, while the remaining three states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry go to polls together?
It has been done to maximise the utilisation of resources required to conduct an election peacefully and successfully. If you look at it, Assam and West Bengal are close to each other in terms of their geographical location. So for example the paramilitary forces will conduct the polls in Assam and move to West Bengal for area domination in the regions where polls are scheduled in the remaining phases. Of course, since West Bengal is a bigger state than Assam and has problems like that of Left Wing Extremism, the polls have been scheduled in 6 phases.
By the end of April, the security forces will move to the South to cover the remaining states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry where the requirement is not that pertinent since they are relatively peaceful states. Moreover, we have decided to hold the voting on one day to issues like cross border influence since all the three states share borders and Puducherry, specifically has Assembly constituencies within Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The practice is to also hold these polls together. It will also cut down chances of impersonation, inter-border movements and so on.
Moreover, in Tamil Nadu, exams have been postponed to April due to floods in some parts of the state due to which polling stations and polling personnel are not available. This is why we decided to hold elections in May.
In states like Tamil Nadu, excessive use of money is a big issue. How does the ECI plan to tackle it in the forthcoming polls. What are the new initiatives?
We have improved on the already existing mechanisms and devised some new ones. For example, the flying squads will now be equipped with GPS to track their movement. Plus, they will be accompanied by Central forces. This has been done since, earlier, there used to be complaints that the squads were not doing their jobs properly and would go to a different location deliberately instead of the one mentioned in the complaint.
We have also directed the intelligence units of the Income Tax Department and the Department of Excise in different states to keep a close watch on the movement of illegitimate cash and alcohol. In Tamil Nadu, for example, hawala transactions are prevalent. So we have told the IT officials, who are competent in investigating such cases, to keep a close eye on such networks.
They have been entrusted with surveillance of all suspicious operators. They have also been told to keep a watch on the airports to detect any movement of cash. There will be surveillance teams on all inter-district borders to check vehicles, suspicious individuals and so on.
West Bengal is a big state, with security issues. That's why polls will be held in 6 phases
Some people friendly steps have also been taken in this regard. Earlier, there were cases when people with genuine need of carrying cash had to sometime face problem during the election time. Now, there will be an appellate body in every district to attend to petitions from the public and examine each case of seizure by the police or the flying squad. Such complaints will be disposed off within 24 hours.
There is a major problem of D Voters or 'Doubtful Voters' as they are referred to in Assam. Many of them, who reside in remote areas, complain that they don't even get notices from the Tribunal or courts informing them of the fact that their voting rights are under a cloud. Is the Election Commission planning any specific drive to resolve this issue?
Till the time the Electoral Registration Officer gets an order from the courts or the relevant tribunal on the verification of such people, who have been declared doubtful voters, their voting rights shall remain suspended.
Paid news is not an offence. We have written to the Law Ministry that it be declared an offence
After the cleaning of electoral rolls there are about a lakh doubtful voters in Assam and we are awaiting a decision from the concerned courts or tribunal on specific cases before their names can be included again in the electoral rolls.
What about paid news? How is the ECI going to deal with it?
We have a three tier mechanism called Media certification and Monitoring Committees in place at the district, state and ECI level to keep a check on paid news. We have also put a revised comprehensive instruction on our website besides instructing the CEOs to educate the stakeholders.
However, paid news in itself is not an offence. We have written to the Law Ministry that it be declared an offence. That is yet to happen. We have also been asking that bribing be declared a cognisable offence. That has also not happened.
There was criticism that the ECI didn't take cases of hate speeches seriously in the last elections...
I disagree. We took cognisance of all such incidents and cases are pending in the courts. When it comes to violation of the Model Code of Conduct, after going through the responses we have censured political leaders or have conveyed displeasure. In such cases a political leader can be prohibited from taking part in campaigning. We have also directed all the District Magistrates to lodge FIRs immediately if any complaint of violation comes.
We are committed to holding free, fair and peaceful elections. Nobody will be allowed to disrupt the social harmony and we will take strict action. We have asked the candidates, the political parties to comply with our directives.