Time to Make Paid News a Criminal Offence for Both Giver and Taker
The Election Commission received applause for smooth conduct of general elections 2014. But during this 73 day period there were reports of the EC acting biased, discord among the Election Commissioners (ECs), taking longer time for the decisions which should have been taken instantly, etc. Organiser Senior Correspondent Pramod Kumar spoke to former Chief Election Commissioner Dr Shahabu-ddin Yaqoob Quraishi to know his views on all such issues. Shri Quraishi is for strict punishment to those found involved in Paid News, which he feels is the biggest threat to Indian democracy. “There should be a law making Paid News a criminal or electoral offence for both the giver and the taker,” he says. Excerpts:
What are your observations about General Elections 2014?
Elections in India have evolved over the years. Every election is more or less the same, but always there are efforts that the latest election should be better than the previous one. In this sense these elections too have gone well. Considering the size and the magnitude of voters it is like 90 countries rolled into one in numbers. These are the things which Indians can be very proud of because the entire world admires India’s elections.
·Model code should continue to be a model code, because the moment it is made a law it will go into the judicial domain. There will be FIRs for even minor violations flooding the courts with fresh cases. All parties should ponder over it.
·Reports of discord among ECs are misleading, wrong, erroneous and undesirable.
·Lengthy election process is because of the shortage of Central Paramilitary Forces. If the EC gets adequate force, it will be happy to conduct the pollsin one day.
·Most of the candidates give bogus figures of poll expenditure. Even than they keep on demanding increase in the limit.
What are the limitations you find in conducting free and fair polls?
Not, except one increasing feeling about the model code of conduct. People expect a lot more, but the EC can do nothing more than issuing warning, advise, etc. We say the candidate can be debarred from contest, but these are the extreme measures. At the same time we feel the model code should continue to be a model code. Because the moment you make it a law, it goes out of the jurisdictions of the EC and reaches into the judicial domain. Even on a minor violation, like putting a posture or using more cars than the permission, there would be FIRs. If that happens there will be a flood of cases in the courts.
The impression is that the EC takes more time in taking decisions?
The EC takes all decisions collectively. In phased polls, suppose the dispute arises in one phase and the Election Commission is travelling somewhere else it takes time to reach them in office. Secondly, the EC cannot take decisions on the basis of merely newspapers or television reports, howsoever clear they maybe. It asks for original CDs, DVDs, complaint or the evidences. By the time these documents reach Delhi, it takes one or two days. After that if the Commission is travelling, it causes another one or two days delay. In this process the four-five days delay is there. Due to media hype, this delay looks even more than it is. Compressing it is very difficult. If there are other reasons for the delay, they need to be compressed and instant action is expected.
There are also reports of discord between the ECs. What do you feel?
All such reports are misleading. They originated from Mr Brahma giving some interview. Mr Samppat has already clarified it. Every decision was collective and unanimous. In a case there may be three different thinking, but the EC’s practice is to reach at the consensus, and that becomes the decision of the whole Commission.
There were allegations of booth capturing in central and eastern UP, Bihar and West Bengal. What do you say?
I cannot comment on it as I don’t have the details. Such complaints come all the time and 98 per cent of them are found wrong. The EC has created so many checks and balances in the form of observers, micro observers, etc. If any report is found true the EC takes no time in ordering re-poll. Sometimes re-polls on re-polls have been ordered to ensure free and fair poll.
A candidate in Assam was reported assaulting some people in his constituency for not voting for him. The candidate is said to be a minister in the State government. But the EC did not take any action against him?
I don’t know why the EC didn't took notice of it. Don’t expect that every report appearing in regional newspapers too is read by the EC. The political parties are alert and they make complaints. If there is genuine complaint, we definitely take action.
Don’t you feel the 71 day election process is very lengthy and the duration could have reduced?
Very little can be done on it. The EC conducts polls in phases only for the simple reason—to save lives. Every party demands safe and secure voting and for this there is a heavy demand of Central Paramilitary Forces. They want every booth to be protected by central forces. The forces are limited. We negotiate with the Home Ministry and whatever force we get we take the decision keeping that in view. We keep on using that force in different areas. In that process we should not ignore the strain that these forces have to go through. If we have adequate force, we shall be very happy to conduct all polls in one day. Of course because of many phases there are problems and because of media explosion the trends also get known in other areas. But when we look at the loss of lives nobody can say it is not paramount.
Even after increase in poll expenditure limit, do you feel the candidates show actual amount they spend?
Most of the candidates give bogus figures. Even than there is always demand to increase the limit. Even in my tenure it was increased from Rs 10 to 16 lakh for Assembly polls. But on an average what the candidates reported was merely 50 per cent of the actual expenditure. If you are not spending even Rs 8 lakh for an Assembly seat against the limit of Rs 16 lakh, what is the logic of demanding further increase in it?
Compare to previous polls, the highest number of Paid News cases have been recorded this time. What is the remedy?
It is one of our unsolved problems. On our part we have been taking action. At district level we have set-up District Media Certification and Monitoring Committees, which keep an eye on such cases. Hundreds of notices are given every time. We do feel that there should be a law making Paid News a criminal or electoral offence for both giver and taker.
The Supreme Court recently armed the EC with the powers to conduct inquiry against any candidate. How do you look at it?
We already had this power and that is why we have been conducting enquiries. But Mr Chavan went to the Court questioning our authority. The High Court upheld our stand and now the Supreme Court too supported us. Now the EC is going ahead with the inquiry.
Do you think Ashok Chavan may be disqualified?
If allegations are proved, he deserves disqualification. We have already disqualified UP MLA Umlesh Yadav on similar charges. There were three cases in the appeal including Madhu Koda and Umlesh Yadav.
Deletion of names from the rolls becomes an issue in every poll. Why there is no full proof mechanism for it?
The EC has as full proof mechanism for it as it could be. It is the only organisation which goes door-to-door asking people to enroll or give their forms through booth level officers. Does the Passport or Driving Licence Office have such mechanism? Do you see any advertisement from those agencies for their services? No. But we do. Some people even question the expenditure on such advertisements. Despite that if you don’t check your name in the rolls timely you have no logic to blame the EC.
—Dr SY Quraishi, former CEC