Former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) SY Quraishi has a doctorate in communication and social marketing. He was considered one of the most vocal CECs, who expressed his opinion freely and fearlessly. He planned and supervised many state assembly elections during his tenure as CEC from July 2010 to June 2012. He introduced many electoral reforms and created a voter education division and an expenditure monitoring division in the Election Commission (EC).

He also set up the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management (IIDEM) and launched National Voters Day. A Haryana-cadre 1971 batch IAS officer, Quraishi held significant posts in the Haryana government as well as in the Union government. He spoke to VIJAY THAKUR on the upcoming general elections and the challenges before the EC. Excerpts:

Q: The biggest festival of democracy is getting underway. You have seen EC from within. How is this election going to be different from the previous ones?

A: It is more or less the same as what it was last time except that this time it would be a bit bigger. In India every election is bigger than the last election. In fact, since 1951 when India had the biggest election in the world, it is getting bigger and bigger. Quality of the elections has also improved. In a nutshell, I can say we are on the right path and election system is improving day by day. Holding such a big election is in itself a huge task. Using EVMs and VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) machines has attracted international praise.

Q: Two decades ago, polling used to be very notorious in some states. There used to be complaints of rigging, booth capturing and large-scale violence. Today the situation is different ~ most of these complaints have virtually vanished thanks to EVMs and large-scale deployment of security forces. But political parties are now questioning the effectiveness and credibility of EVMs and VVPAT. What is your take on it?

A: The issue raised by some political parties on the credibility of EVMs and the Election Commission is very unfortunate. Ever since EVM was introduced in 1982, it has been questioned and challenged in the court. It stood all kind of tests, including judicial tests. Every political party at one point or the other has raised questions on credibility of EVMs. They take it up when they lose the elections and forget it when they win the elections using the same EVMs. It all started when a BJP leader wrote a book “Democracy at Risk” with a foreword by L K Advani. After that all political parties raised a hue and cry about the machines. I was then CEC and called a meeting of all political parties in October 2010 and wanted to understand their doubts. In that meeting all parties agreed that if we introduce VVPAT, the problem would be solved. We immediately agreed and told the manufacturing companies to develop a VVPAT, giving them our requirements as suggested by the representatives of political parties. We had an independent team of five IIT professors whom we asked to check the dependability of the VVPAT. Once it was developed in 2011, we tested it in five different weather conditions. After one year we tested it again in the same cities, this time it was 100 per cent foolproof. The commission also did some more tests and finally introduced it in state assembly elections. The results were great and no problem was reported in any of the machines. Now the machines are ready and the 2019 general elections would see VVPATs. After this the debate should have been over. But now another debate has started, political parties claim that counting of 1 per cent VVPAT machines is too little and it should be much more, some want 30 per cent and some demand 50 per cent. I personally feel that 1 per cent counting is too little and it should have been 5 per cent. The commission has sought suggestions from experts on what percentage should be counted. I don’t understand why the EC is taking so long to decide on it.

Q: Don’t you think the politicisation of EVMs and VVPAT machines would tarnish the image of the EC globally?

A: As I said Indian elections are the largest in the world and highly respected. The political parties should understand that prolonged debate on EVMs and VVPATs and questioning the integrity of the EC would send a negative impression of India’s image worldwide. This unnecessary and unrequired debate is very bad for democracy. They should understand that if the credibility of an institution comes into question, it would be very dangerous.

Q: What, in your view, should be the best solution for ending such a controversy in future so that the integrity and credibility of the EC is not damaged?

A: What I understand is that political parties should have more trust in the EC. They have an impression that since the EC’s appointment is not independent, it would be biased towards the party in power. I am also of the strong opinion that the appointment of EC is very defective. It should be independent and not in the hands of the party in power. We already have a Collegium system for appointment of judges, CVC, CIC, and even for the CBI Director. Why not introduce it for the Commission as well? A Collegium should be set up immediately for appointment of EC members to improve the Commission’s image.

Q: The percentage of people opting for NOTA (None of the Above) has increased recently. Do you think it would pose a challenge in the near future?

A: NOTA option just reflects how many people did not find the quality candidate. This option would not have any impact on the elections until we introduce “right to reject”, which I don’t think is possible legally. However, NOTA would directly compel political parties to go for quality candidates. From EC’s point of view, NOTA is very important because it would stop rigging. If you don’t like any of the candidates and vote for NOTA, no one would misuse your vote.