In his first interview, chief election commissioner Sushil Chandra said the strong turnout in the assembly polls was a vote of confidence in the EC. He also spoke about difference of opinions with EC Rajiv Kumar to TOI’s Bharti Jain. Excerpts:
It was stated by election commissioner Rajiv Kumar in the draft affidavit which was not filed in Madras HC that the EC had considered deferring the recent polls in view of the Covid surge. At what stage was this considered?
At no point of time in the commission was there any thought of deferring the elections. Only a request was received for clubbing the last two phases, and at that time, the EC had discussed various consequences of doing so. Considering the logistics of manpower and central forces’ deployment which is decided much in advance, it was not considered necessary to club the last two phases.
Did the EC at least consider deferring the last few phases when Congress requested this in view of Ramzan? Was there such a suggestion from any EC member?
Ramzan, like all festivals and holidays, was considered before planning the elections. Nobody in the EC expressed any view with regard to deferring of polls.
Why was election commissioner Rajiv Kumar’s separate affidavit offering to take personal responsibility if Madras HC did not withdraw its ‘murder’ remark,not filed by EC?
The affidavit and miscellaneous application (MA) before Madras HC and later the SLP in the Supreme Court were approved by both the commissioners, or basically, the EC. He (Kumar) had very clearly mentioned that he was absolutely fine with the draft MA and gave his go ahead. Similarly, SLP was also approved by him. So the documents that were filed in the court had approval of the commission.
The affidavit (drafted by Kumar) is a separate issue. That was discussed with the counsel before going to Madras HC and he had opined that only one affidavit could be filed on behalf of the commission. In an SLP, there is no question of filing affidavit. If at all there are any differences in an organisation, matters are decided on the basis of precedents, rules and judicial pronouncements. There are procedures in the commission to handle these types of situations.
There appears to be an impression that the view of 50% of the EC, given that it presently has only two members, went unheard?
All views of the election commissioner were incorporated and that is why he approved the miscellaneous application and SLP. Actually, both EC members were on the same page in that the oral observations of the Madras HC CJ must be withdrawn. The SC has now given a judgment in our favour. The court was clear that the remarks of the HC were harsh and inappropriate. It also did not attribute any culpability of the pandemic to the EC.
Considering the alleged pressure on the Nandigram returning officer after he rejected a recount demanded by the TMC agent, is EC thinking of giving some post-poll protection to ROs in general?
Election-related officials often face the wrath of the new government in the postelection phase. The EC is concerned about this. Last year, the commission directed the chief secretaries not to initiate disciplinary proceedings against senior officers in the CEO office up to one year from expiry of their tenure. EC will further deliberate to ensure that its field officers, including returning officers, are not targeted for performing their statutory duties in a fair and neutral manner. A similar one-year bar (on disciplinary action) for returning officers may be discussed.
How does the EC rate itself on conduct of recent polls?
The elections were completed peacefully with 82.2% voters in West Bengal, 82.3% in Assam, 83.4% in Puducherry, 74.5% in Kerala and 73.6% in Tamil Nadu exercising their franchise. Successful democratic transition within the prescribed timeframe, despite the pandemic situation, is an achievement.
Do you think the 2020 Covid guidelines of EC need to be revisited?
The guidelines worked well for Bihar polls. When the latest elections were announced in February, Covid situation had significantly improved. There was no indication from the health authorities or experts that a second phase of the pandemic was on its way. However, the commission did not ease its protocol. During the last few phases, as the Covid situation intensified, EC responded by revising its instructions. But EC is absolutely open to reform.
Have the attacks against EC by politicians over its impartiality and fairness affected its credibility as an institution?
Credibility of an institution comes from the trust reposed by voters. With high voter turnout despite Covid, it is without doubt another mark of faith after successful Bihar elections in 2020. All stakeholders accepted the result. The credibility of the institution of EC is as strong as ever.