Former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), Om Prakash Rawat, had launched a countrywide voters’ education drive to reach out to first-time young voters and start special teaching classes for them. As CEC, his major accomplishment was to bring more first-time voters to the polling booths. He also put special emphasis on violence-free polling in UP, Bihar and West Bengal.

In August 2015, he was appointed as Election Commissioner and in January 2018 he became the 22nd CEC. A Madhya Pradesh Cadre 1977 batch IAS officer, Rawat had earlier worked in various senior positions in the government at the Centre as well as in Madhya Pradesh. He brought several changes to the electoral process.

It was during his tenure that the Election Commission of India (ECI) managed to develop the VVPAT machine in a very short time and organised its safe and secure deployment all over the country. In an interview to VIJAY THAKUR over phone, Rawat spoke on a range of issues concerning the ECI and polls. Excerpts:

Q: The EC has done significant work in bringing voters to polling booths and increasing polling percentage throughout the country. What measures were taken to achieve this?

A: It is a fact that the efforts made by various Election Commissioners during the past two decades have reduced incidents of poll-related violence and increased polling percentage. First, the EC launched voters’ awareness campaigns throughout the country. We educated young voters, told them about the importance of voting for a healthy democracy. We started an Electoral Literacy Club, a platform to engage school students through interesting activities. We gave hands-on experience to sensitise school students on their electoral rights and familiarise them with the electoral process of registration and voting. This campaign was launched under SVEEP (Systematic Voter’s Education and Electoral Participation).

Q: Poll-related violence has come down. Booth looting and bogus voting, which used to be rampant two decades ago, are now things of the past. How has the EC managed to bring about this remarkable change?

A: To reduce poll-related violence, the EC has been continuously increasing deployment of Central Paramilitary forces in sensitive booths. It arranged CPOs’ (Central Police Organisations) movement in such a way that the entire country is covered during electioneering. This certainly helped us to reduce poll violence and booth capturing. However, major credit for this should also go to EVMs (Electronic Voting Machines). The EVMs have virtually made booth capturing or booth rigging impossible. Normally voting per person using an EVM takes 15 to 20 seconds, which means you need to have at least five-and-a-half hours to rig a polling booth. This is not possible in the normal course. Imagine now we hardly receive any complaint of booth rigging in UP and Bihar, which used to be notorious for such acts.

Q: Most political parties are criticising EVMs and have demanded paper ballots. Do you think one reason behind their opposition might be because EVMs make rigging very difficult?

A: No, not really. I strongly believe all political parties have great faith in democracy and they would never blame EVMs just for the sake of it. They probably had certain genuine reservations on EVMs, which we tried to resolve. The use of VVPAT must have addressed most of their issues. But at the same time, we must accept…very few humbly accept their defeat…they rather try to find fault with the system. No political party questioned EVMs when they won with thumping majority whether it was Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, or any other state. But when they lose, they use EVMs as a scapegoat. And adopt a “blame it on EVMs” policy. In a nutshell, poor EVMs are the easiest excuse for political parties. But, in their heart of hearts they know how reliable the EVM is. When we challenged political parties and all other stakeholders to hack EVMs, no one turned up except two political parties who wanted to know about EVMs rather than challenge it.

Q: This year some political parties are accusing the ECI of not taking timely action on complaints of Model Code of Conduct (MCC) violations against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. Your comments?

A: ECI is a very reputed organisation. People have great faith in ECI. Therefore people’s perception is very important. While taking any action or decision, EC should have ensured that people do not have any negative perception against the organisation. They should not only deliver justice, but it should also appear that they have delivered justice. EC should also deliver timely justice and justify their act and action for the delay. I would not go into the merit of the cases and would not question their decisions, but as a common man, I could not understand or justify why EC took nearly a month to dispose of complaints against the high and mighty on the Model Code of Conduct violations. General perception is that EC has disposed of the complaints under pressure from the Supreme Court. It is a cause of serious concern for a healthy democracy that common people have started questioning EC’s decisions. While dealing with the high and mighty, ECI must act immediately and take decisions. Such complaints should have been taken up on top priority. Keeping a complaint pending for more than a month against the PM or against the head of the party in power during elections would automatically raise several questions. And certainly it would also adversely affect the image of the Commission.

Q: Scores of former senior bureaucrats had written to the President of India recently to complain against the EC over its “crisis of credibility” and to urge him to ensure fair Lok Sabha polls. Another disturbing trend is that ECI is not publishing its order against people at high places on its website as it used to do in other cases. Don’t you think this has damaged credibility of a constitutional body like the ECI?

A: Yes, I agree to a great extent. Transparency is very important, especially for a constitutional body like ECI which is the main instrument in deciding fate of the country. Even as a former CEC, I do not understand why the orders were not published for public. There is no reason to keep it under wraps. The Commission always takes decisions in a judicious manner. They must have gone by the merit of the case. And must have taken decision keeping in mind all aspects. But then why they are not informing public of their orders by uploading it on their website? Complainants and people of this country have every right to know on what basis they have passed their orders.