Biggest challenge was dealing with abuse of money power: Nasim Zaidi

Biggest challenge was dealing with abuse of money power: Nasim Zaidi

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Outgoing chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Outgoing chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

New Delhi: Chief election commissioner (CEC) Nasim Zaidi demits office on Wednesday. In an interview, he speaks about the recent controversy over electronic voting machines (EVMs), the need for more transparency in poll campaign funding, the push for greater voter enrolment, particularly first-time voters, and the challenges faced during his tenure. Edited excerpts:

When you took over as CEC, your tenure’s focus was on voter enrolment, particularly first-time voters. How challenging has the process been?

One of the challenges in the registration process is how to educate our voters about their role in an electoral democracy, about their rights, about their duties and what role their votes can play in the election of the right kind of representative and likewise.

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The second part is, after generating that demand, how to back that with the supply of our services. Like, our machinery must reach out to those voters, our IT initiatives must be available to voters not only in urban areas but in rural areas and we are doing that.

A few years ago the enrolment of young voters, particularly 18-19 or up to 21 (years), was only 10% of those eligible but I think over the years our SVEEP (Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation) programme has played a greater role and their enrolment level has increased.

But there is a long way to go. Still, as per our compilation, more than 30 million young voters of 18-19 (years) are still to be registered. That is why we went to Facebook and it has been a hugely popular programme.

Towards the end of your tenure, the EVM controversy took centre stage. Looking back do you think the episode undermined the institution of the Election Commission (EC)?

How I look at it is that it was the most avoidable thing to happen. EVMs have been in use on a large scale for the past 20 years and it is not as if EVMs have not been part of controversy… the Commission has always had faith in EVMs. It believes that EVMs are tamperproof.

When this controversy erupted, the EC took all possible measures, including dialogue with political parties and an EVM challenge. I don’t think the EVM controversy has weakened or undermined (the EC).

In your tenure, there were sharp attacks by some political parties on the EC, including the charge of bias. What do you have to say to that?

I cannot comment on what goes on in their minds or their thought process. I can only comment as on what relates to me… those who were levelling political or EVM-related accusations have not given any evidence.

Regarding bias, I must reassert that the Commission goes by Constitutional provisions, rules. So, if we are criticized for doing right things, it is okay. But, if we are criticized for political bias, it is not expected.

There is a view that the EC should have more legal powers to act on certain issues. What do you think?

It’s not as if we don’t have powers but there are certain areas of electoral reforms. We have sent close to 50 proposals and legal empowerment is needed in terms of making bribery a cognizable offence, and paid news an offence. The EC needs power to countermand elections in cases of widespread bribery… we need a lot of transparency in political funding. These are the areas in which legally-enabling provisions are needed, which I think will make EC more resolved to handle such malpractices in the electoral arena. It is not power per se, I must make it clear.

What are your views on making voting compulsory?

We are a very big and complex country with a huge voter base. From the EC’s point of view, it would be a nightmare to operationalize compulsory voting in the country. A large number of voters are still not voting in spite of increasing voter turnout. In 2014, 300 million people did not vote. So how do you proceed against these people?

As CEC, what was the most challenging aspect of your tenure?

We have conducted all elections in a free and fair manner but I think in my tenure the biggest challenge was how to curb the abuse of money. This was one big challenge. We continue to strengthen our machinery to restrain the movement of money during election time and this is a challenge… In Tamil Nadu, we had to countermand the election three times in the same constituency. My biggest challenge has been dealing with abuse of money power.

What according to you will be your legacy at the EC?

I think I have tried to bring about lot of institutional change in the EC in terms of documentation in all important areas. There is a standard document control system. Besides, we have identified more than 250 risks and how to deal with each of them. For example, use of a pen. We have identified it as a risk and plugged it. We have developed manuals on risk management.

So, one is institutional strengthening in terms of human resources and the second relates to communication and information to voters. These two areas leave one with a sense of satisfaction.