PROF JAGDEEP S CHHOKAR is one of the founding members of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) — one of the leading voluntary organisations dedicated to strengthening democracy and improving governance in the country.
He has worked for electoral reforms through the judicial system by filing Public Interest Litigations in the higher judiciary to get relevant laws improved, and on the ground by providing information to voters about the background of candidates contesting elections so that they can make informed choices while voting.
Before founding the ADR, Chhokar — who has a PhD from Louisiana State University, USA — was a professor of Management and Organisational Behaviour at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. In an interview with RAKESH KUMAR, he shared his thoughts on a variety of issues roiling the country.
Q. Madras High Court recently observed that the Election Commission of India is ‘singularly responsible’ for the devastating second Covid wave for doing nothing to prevent political parties from violating Covid safety protocols. It even remarked that the EC should probably be booked for murder in this connection.What’s your take?
A. The observation of the Madras High Court about booking EC for murder is an overstatement. But it is also a fact that Election Commission has not covered itself in glory, not only in this election but the elections held in the last four to five years.
Therefore, Election Commission does need a significant amount of introspection or, I suppose, course correction. To say that they (EC) should be prosecuted for murder is I think an emotional or rhetorical statement. I won’t take that seriously. EC’s going to first High Court and then Supreme Court to seek withdrawal of that statement is also a little immature.
Q. Earlier,on 22 April,Calcutta High Court also rapped the EC for ‘totally failing’ to implement the Covid guidelines during the campaigning and voting period.Do you think such judicial censures came rather late in the day since the elections had virtually come to an end by then barring a few rounds of Bengal polls?
A. Yes, it came rather late, but I am glad it came. But the important point is Election Commission can’t be under this impression that its job is only to issue the instructions. That is not entirely correct. My understanding of the law is that once the elections are declared in any state, the entire bureaucratic staff of the state is deemed to be on a deputation to Election Commission.
Thus, EC transfers the Director General of Police, Chief Secretary and others. The EC is actually an executive authority in the state where election is announced. It is not right for them to say that we have issued the instructions, now it is for the states to implement. They need to understand that the so called state staff is with them in the election. Their job is to get the work done, not only issue the instructions.
Q. Do you think these Assembly elections in four states and one UT should have been allowed amid the raging Covid pandemic in the first place? And, who should be held accountable for the viral deaths and horrors convulsing the country now?
A. No! You can’t say anybody is singularly responsible for it (though). Election Commission is answerable to the President of India and it could have sought the permission of the President to postpone the election. If the President would have thought that he needed judicial advice, he could have referred it to the Supreme Court of India. Then, the legal advice could have been taken. But none of them thought of it.
Moreover, elections were announced in a very strange way too. When there is such an epidemic going on, there was no need to hold the election in so many phases. I got to know that in one district of Bengal, the poll was held in two phases. It is very bizarre and dangerous. Then in rallies, the national leaders did not wear masks, it is very unfortunate. When you are a constitutional body and do jobs like organising an election, you can’t be deferential to the government. Where is independence?
Q. What is your assessment of the electoral bonds scheme?
A. It is the last nail in the coffin of transparency of electoral and political finances. After this, there is nothing to talk about transparency in political funding. It is absolutely ridiculous. There are many things wrong about which I have written extensively. To begin with, the electoral bonds scheme is unconstitutional. There is no reason why electoral bonds are part of a Money Bill.
After that, I think the government has overruled two constitutional bodies: Reserve Bank of India and Election Commission of India, who disagreed and found fault with the scheme. They said it will result in forming of more shell companies. The scheme was introduced despite a lot of objections. Also, the electoral bonds have a potential to choke the funding of all Opposition parties. Since the ruling parties will have information about the bonds, therefore it can prevent anybody or everybody from donating to any other political party. This is a very terrible situation.
Q. Many Opposition parties are opposed to the use of EVMs for polling, charging that these machines could be manipulated or compromised.What are your views on the integrity and fairness of our elections — and what measures must be taken to improve it?
A. This is a big mess into which the country has been brought by all political parties. The reason being in 2009 a leading member of the current ruling party wrote a book (assailing EVMs) and a former deputy prime minister wrote a forward to it. This was the state in 2009. Then people picked this up as a very interesting ploy. Since then, whosoever lost the election blamed EVMs. As per my opinion, EVMs are perfectly alright even now.
However, the introduction of VVPAT has muddied the waters. It involves too many things like you press the button and then a paper will come out and sometime things are not cleared. In the past, strange events had happened once the EC put up data of votes cast and votes counted in its website. There were differences in these two figures. When people pointed this out, the Election Commission stopped putting up the data. Again, rather than solving the problem, it raised doubts.
Therefore, the Election Commission will have to be transparent and answer all questions of the people. They can’t say we will make the EVMs available, and come and show me how it can be tampered. Why should they be defensive? Overall, EVMs are fine. Therefore, all political parties should behave in a mature and responsible manner when it comes to EVMs. Because once the people start doubting elections like this in the country, democracy is gone.
Q. Many leaders in the Opposition advocate for reintroduction of ballet papers in elections. What is your view on it?
A. In short, it is stupidity. There are problems but it does not mean that we should go back. We can’t copy other countries, they have a different situation.