An IAS officer of the 1971 batch, Dr Shahabuddin Yaqoob Quraishi was Chief Election Commissioner from 30 June 2010 to 12 June 2012, the first Muslim to head the poll panel.
One of the most vocal CECs, he planned and supervised many state assembly elections during his two-year tenure. He has authored a book titled ‘An Undocumented Wonder – the Making of the Great Indian Election’, that describes the enormity and complexity of Indian elections. He has also written a coffee table book titled ‘Old Delhi – Living Traditions’ on the heritage city and its social and cultural life.
Before he became CEC Quraishi held various important posts in the Haryana govenrment as well as the Union government, including as Secretary of Youth Affairs and Sports. He was awarded the Honorary Fellowship of the National Indian Students and Alumni Union, UK, in May 2016. In an interview to VIJAY THAKUR, Quraishi spoke on the recent EVM controversy and the reforms required in the Election Commission. Excerpts.
Q: Some political parties are questioning the credibility of electronic voting machines. How do you see this?
A: Ever since we introduced EVMs in 1982, it has been questioned by every political party at some point or the other. But EVMs have stood the test of time. In fact, when a political party wins with the same EVM, they keep quiet for that moment. But they do not take back their words or endorse these machines for the future. So, this controversy has happened off and on.
I personally feel that after the introduction of VVPAT (voter verified paper audit trail), the controversy should have died down. When the VVPAT issue was hot and it was discussed in the Supreme Court, the critics of the machines were only arguing that VVPAT will make it very transparent. Now arrangements for the same have been done and the top court has also appreciated our efforts.
Q: You mean the issues raised by political parties are more political in nature and have little to do with the performance of the machines?
A: I will not call it political. They may be right in their place, because no political party would like to take a chance. If they have the slightest doubt they should raise their voice at an appropriate place. We should not ridicule their protest.
But at the same time, the reputation of the Election Commission is critical for a credible election. It takes years to build and minutes to demolish. I do not blame political parties for raising the controversy. Here it is the role of the Election Commission to clear all doubts in the mind of political parties.
It should be more proactive to end the controversy before it penetrates people’s minds. Commission should call political parties again and again so that there is not even the slightest doubt left. When a political party raises a debate, it penetrates the minds of common people. If it penetrates the public mind it will be very difficult to dispel. And that is my worry.
Q: Now the political parties are saying EVMs have been rejected by many developed countries. What is your take on it? They say if USA or Europe are not using it why is India using it. How are our EVMs different from EVMs used by these developed countries?
A: It is a fact that some countries have stopped using EVMs. But we must go into the reasons why they stopped using it. Unfortunately, nobody goes into detail. Like America does not have a single system of voting.
Those who say USA does not use EVMs are neither wrong nor right. There are nearly 10,000 counties and other local bodies which conduct elections and some thousands of these entities use EVMs of various makes, but some prefer ballot paper voting system.
In Europe four countries were using EVMs of a make that was withdrawn for a technical reason. Actually, these companies were using EVMs of a single company called Nedar and that machine had a small defect. The signal of the machine was noticed outside the polling booth, the authorities considered it a security risk and withdrew it.
In Germany the Supreme Court declared EVMs illegal. The apex court went by the law of the land, which says that the system should be transparent where a common person can see to whom his vote is going. Twenty-five years ago, our own Supreme Court had outlawed the machine for a similar reason.
It did not find any fault with the machine, but it ruled thus because the Representation of People Act said voting has to be done through ballot paper. So, we also withdrew the machines. Later we incorporated electronic machine in the Act and in 1998 introduced EVMs in the state assembly elections. And from 2004 it has been used in the general elections.
Q: In recent by-elections, some machines were found to be malfunctioning, and there were allegations of a particular political party being favoured. What is your take?
A: See a machine has several safeguards ~ technical safeguards and administrative safeguards. In technical safeguards we see what kind of software we are using, whether it is tamperable. EC is not a technical expert, so it has set up an independent committee of five technical experts comprising senior professors of different IITs.
They have been looking into all aspects and updating the commission from time to time. Unless they certify technology, we do not touch it at all. Their contribution is highly commendable.
The second aspect is administrative safeguards. First is custodial security, the EVMs are transported under tight security. They are always under highly armed security vigilance. It is opened only before the representatives of political parties. You would be surprised, even the Election Commission is not aware of the destination of the EVMs. EC only informs how many EVMs are to be sent to which state.
Rest is decided randomly by a computer. It decides which machine would go to which state and which polling station. Due to this randomisation, Commission does not know which machine would go where.
Therefore, all the allegations that if you press any button it would go to BJP or Congress are baseless and ridiculous. Buttons are not assigned by party but by the name of candidate, so the button keeps changing from one constitutency to another.
Thirdly and most importantly, there is a three-level check of machines before it is installed at a polling booth. First testing of every machine when a machine is lying for a long time, then mock testing before political parties. Second time testing is done when a candidate is assigned. And third testing is done a few hours before polling in front of representatives of political parties. After all this, there are still chances of malfunctioning. If a machine malfunctions, arrangements are made to replace the machine within half an hour.
The introduction of VVPAT was the last option to bring transparency in the polling system. Now since a voter can see where his vote is going, all the issues raised by political parties are resolved.
However, there are chances of malfunctioning of VVPAT machines, the percentage of VVPATs malfunctioning would be more than in the case of EVMS. That’s why the EC has ordered more VVPAT machines to increase its reserve.
Q: You have seen ballot paper voting and EVM voting. Which is better?
A: EVMs are any day better. It is faster, more reliable. Ballot papers have many problems. They increase dispute cases. While ballot paper is outdated, EVMs give exact result. Our staff have much more experience. Our electoral system is superior to many developed countries. Our credibility the world over is very high. That’s why once Hillary Clinton described our electoral system as the ‘gold standard’. We never had any problem like Florida where for days US electoral authorities could not decide on final counting.
There are many countries which are using Indian EVMs and they are very happy. Like Namibia which has been using Indian EVMs for the past 15 years. Bhutan also had a very good experience with Indian EVMs.
Q: What reform do you think is needed for enhancing the credibility of EVMs in people’s minds? And what should the government do to maintain the independent nature of the Election Commission?
A: I would say there should be transparency in appointments in the Election Commission. The most important electoral reform which is required is regarding the appointment of Election Commissioners. At present, the government of the day appoints them whereas it should be through collegium system like it is done for other important posts.
All judicial appointments, even the CVC and CIC, which are not even constitutional bodies, are done through collegiums but unfortunately, the most important and most powerful Election Commission in the world has the most defective system of appointment.
EC is appointed by the government of the day, which means other political parties can always suspect that the Commissioners might oblige the people who appointed them. It is a miracle that the institution of Election Commission has survived despite so many defects.
But the reputation of the Election Commission must be guarded. If appointed by a collegium, people would consider it a neutral body. For a great democracy, neutrality and superiority of the Election Commission is paramount.