Former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) S Y QURAISHI, who has a doctorate in communication and social marketing, is known for expressing his opinions freely and fearlessly. He headed the Election Commission (EC) from July 2010 to June 2012 — the period when the EVM controversy erupted — and he was the one who proposed and implemented the VVPAT mechanism to address issues raised by various political parties.

During his two-year tenure as the CEC, he planned and supervised several state assembly elections. He introduced many electoral reforms and introduced voter education and expenditure monitoring divisions in the EC.

He has authored a book, ‘An Undocumented Wonder – the Making of the Great Indian Election’, which describes the enormity and complexity of Indian elections. He also set up the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management and launched National Voters Day.

A former IAS officer, Quraishi held significant posts in Haryana as well as in the Union government. In an interview with VIJAY THAKUR, Quraishi spoke on the EC’s roadmap and its challenges in holding elections in pandemic times.

Excerpts:

Q) You have recently called for a ban on opinion polls.Why are you not in favour of opinion polls?

A. There is no issue if the opinion polls are honest. But in a situation where the credibility of media has gone down, you can buy editorials, you can buy news items. That is why all political parties had approached the EC (in this regard). We agreed and told them to make a law against opinion polls. After that the Law Ministry sent us a draft for banning opinion and exit polls. The Election Commission vetted it. But surprisingly after a fortnight, we noticed that they only banned exit polls and left opinion polls. They demanded, we supported it, but when it came to making an Act, they ignored it. Why we are against opinion polls is the trend of paid news. In a situation where we are reporting hundreds of cases of paid news, we cannot rule out ‘bogus’ opinion polls. And if a bogus opinion poll is projected it would influence public opinion and would affect the purity of the elections. So the banning of opinion polls is must for a free and fair election.

Q. To address EVM apprehensions, the Election Commission has introduced VVPAT (Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail) machines. You have now suggested counting of votes from VVPAT slips instead of EVMs.Why?

A. I was heading the CEC when VVPAT was introduced in 2010. When EVM controversy was quite high in 2010, we had an all-party meeting where all political parties agreed to VVPAT. In 2011 we had a dry run of the machine in five towns in different geographical regions. They encountered some errors and were sent back for improvement. A year later, another mock trial was run in the same towns which were successful. Finally, we decided to introduce it in some bye-elections. After its successful run, we finally ordered 20 lakh VVPAT machines and that’s why VVPAT machine was used in 2019 elections. Despite all that, some political parties are still questioning EVM and demanding voting through ballot papers. I suggested two models. First was that the winner and runner up may appeal for recounting of two EVM machines where they suspect something. The second model was to do the reverse, instead of counting on EVMs, count on VVPAT machines. Actually counting of VVPAT and EVM machines take nearly 20 to 25 minutes each. So, instead of counting on EVM, let’s count VVPAT slips, both would take same time, but the confidence level would go up among the contesting candidates. Let’s do it on a pilot basis in some constituency. Reversing the process, which means counting VVPAT slips, would enhance transparency and credibility of the electoral system.

Q. But by doing so, aren’t you actually advocating for a return to paper ballots?

A. Counting of ballot papers is a long process. It was a big paper sheet. Opening it, checking it and then counting takes a much longer time. Whereas VVPAT is a 3-inch slip and hardly takes much time. Counting through a VVPAT machine or through an EVM, both take almost the same time. So in the end there would not be much difference whether we count EVMs or VVPAT slips. I discussed it with some officials of the EC and suggested these change in the process to increase the credibility of the electoral system.

Q. What are your views on the issue of Electoral Bonds?

A. I am strongly of the view that Electoral Bonds are undemocratic, have killed transparency and legitimised crony capitalism. The scheme introduced by the present government has apparently not only legalised crony capitalism but also taken away transparency from political funding. Earlier no company could donate more than 7.5 per cent of their last three years’ profit. Unfortunately, this limit has been taken away and now a company can donate almost 100 per cent of profits. Obviously, there is no free lunch. If a company is giving up huge profit, it would definitely expect something back and may influence the government’s decision in their favour. So the introduction of Electoral Bond is definitely a backward step, although it was pretended that it was a forward step. In the name of bringing transparency, in fact, they killed transparency. Earlier, all donations of more than Rs 20,000 were to be brought to the knowledge of the Election Commission. Today even if the donation is of Rs 20 crore, the EC would not come to know about the source of this funding.

Q. The EC recently conducted the Bihar Assembly polls successfully amid the Covid pandemic which continues to rage. There are some crucial state polls lined up for early next year. What is your take on elections in Covid times?

A. Election Commission has done an excellent job in Bihar assembly elections. It is for the first time that the Commission held four press conferences to bring more transparency. All the detailed guidelines and SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) were scientific, intelligent and based on global experience. We hope it would do the same in the coming elections. India’s Election Commission is always learning and improving itself. EC must have done post mortem of the Bihar assembly elections and I hope it would further improve its guidelines based on its Bihar experience.