Lok Sabha elections are round the corner. Many states, including Jammu and Kashmir, also go to polls at the same time. Separatist activities are on the rise in J&K. Several serial blasts have occurred in the last few weeks in various parts of India. Do you think the situation is right to hold elections in India?
The elections have to be conducted according to the provisions of the Constitution. Every House has a five-year tenure unless it is dissolved earlier. By the time the tenure is over, you have to conduct the elections.
The last Lok Sabha elections took place some time in April 2004. By May 2009, we have to complete the elections as far as the constitutional provision is concerned. But if the government chooses to dissolve the House, the consequence is, there is a time limit between the last sitting of the House and the convening of the new House which cannot be more than six months. So, suppose they dissolve the House some time in November, then by May, they have to conduct the elections. So, the timing of the conduct of the elections is fairly clear.
The EC normally takes into account many things like school holidays as schools are necessary for conducting the elections. Also taken into consideration are the regional festivities. Like, last time, we had the Kumbh Mela, so we had to adjust the dates for Madhya Pradesh differently.
The EC doesn't like to interfere with the entrance examinations like the IIT-JEE. We also take into account climatic considerations. For example, in Himachal Pradesh and J&K, there are practical difficulties in winter.
We have had floods in Orissa, Bihar, etc. If such conditions occur when elections take place, will the Election Commission postpone the elections?
No, elections cannot be postponed because there are constitutional provisions. The only way it can be postponed is, you impose President's rule during the period and elections can be conducted when President's rule is in place. So, there is very little choice as far as the timing is concerned except when a House is dissolved prematurely.
Is it that the tenure of this House cannot go beyond May...
Yes. It cannot go beyond May. By and large, this is the principle followed by the Election Commission.
Who has the say in deciding the timing of the elections? Suppose the Election Commission decides on a date and if the government opposes it?
The government has very little role to play as far as timing of the elections is concerned. As I said, within the constitutional provisions, the Election Commission decides the dates. Whether it is going to be a two-phase or a three-phase election, depends on the availability of the paramilitary forces, etc. They may consult the government about the law and order situation, local holidays, etc but the final decision is that of the Election Commission.
You spoke about the law and order situation. If we take the separatist activities in Jammu and Kashmir, for example, and the violence that is going on there, how will the Election Commission go about conducting the elections in such a situation?
We have conducted elections in even the most difficult times when the militancy was very high. It is not that elections cannot be conducted but we have to take reasonable precautions in conducting the elections.
What are the precautions?
Like people should feel free to come and exercise their franchise. If you have a situation where it is impossible for people to come, then the best remedy will be to dissolve the House and impose President's rule. By the time the President's rule is completed, elections are conducted.
How do you look at the present violent situation in Kashmir? Is it conducive to elections?
Some of these happenings are political and election-oriented. Once the election is announced, all these people will fall in line. This may be some kind of tactic to say that elections cannot be conducted. But as far as the Election Commission is concerned, I am sure they will go by the dates as prescribed in the Constitution.
Unless there is a real fear that voters will not be able to come out to vote, the EC goes ahead with the polls. With the help of the paramilitary forces, we have been conducting elections. Even during the 1996 Kashmir elections, the situation was pretty bad; still we conducted the elections. The voting percentage was not very high in some places.
The EC conducts elections in five or six phases depending upon the ground conditions there. But the Commission will not be scared of any such activities.
During your tenure as Chief Election Commissioner, which place did you find the most difficult to conduct elections?
My major election was the Parliament elections in 2004 throughout the country. The other was the Bihar and Haryana assembly elections. We had some difficult times there; fortunately we were able to conduct without any major problems. There were some disturbing trends like the chief minister of Haryana being attacked, etc. In Bihar, we had a lot of problems. In the end, everything went off well.
As the Chief Election Commissioner, did you have to look at different states differently?
We have to. In states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat or Kerala, we don't see much of violence or managerial problem though they make a lot of noise. But in states like Bihar and UP, we have problems.
So, in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, etc sometimes we conduct elections in a single day. There has been no re-poll in Maharashtra at all so far. So, some states are more peaceful than the others.
In some states, we had Naxalite activities. So, we had to deploy more paramilitary forces there. Sometimes, in some places in AP, Bihar, Jharkhand, etc, we took the police personnel by helicopter.
Do you generally opt for more than one-phase election when you find the situation is not peaceful?
Generally, yes. We had more than one-phase elections where we anticipated violence or political confrontation. Even geography is one of the reasons for multi-phase elections. When Assam had Bihu festival for a week, we conducted the elections in more than one phase last time.
You mean it doesn't depend on the size of the state at all?
Yes, generally it doesn't depend on the size of the state but UP because of its size and also because of its problems, we had to have more phases.
Is it because you need more paramilitary forces that you spread elections to many phases?
Yes, the main reason is the lack of adequate forces.
When you compare conducting elections in Kashmir and Bihar, which was the toughest?
Difficult to say, actually. Except for the militancy-related violence and separatist groups boycotting the elections, we didn't have major problems in Kashmir. On the other hand, in Bihar, we had a lot of political confrontation between parties. In UP also, we had similar problems.
Is it because of the fear of extremists that people do not come out to vote in large numbers in Kashmir? It had always had very poor voter turnout.
In fact, in the last Parliament and assembly elections, the percentage of voting was very high compared to the earlier elections. We had adopted a number of special steps so that people came out to vote. We had brought Urdu-knowing people from UP to man 50 per cent of the polling stations. For example, if there were four people manning a polling station, two were from outside the state.
We didn't have many problems but we had special managerial problems like transporting Urdu teachers from Lucknow by Air Force planes to Srinagar and disperse them. We had to also provide protection to these people.
If you were the CEC now, how would you look at the current situation in India?
There are disturbing trends in some states like violence, militancy, terror attacks, natural calamities, etc. But it is not insurmountable. I am sure the EC will be able to manage the situation. Instead of taking one month, they may take two months to conduct the elections. The EC is so well organised now that they can face any situation without any problem.
When you have opinion polls and exit polls, is conducting elections in a prolonged manner good because these polls affect and influence the mindset of the people?
You are right. Ideally an election should be conducted in a day's time or a week's time. Fortunately we still have good officers who can enforce discipline. By and large, you can say the elections are fair and free.
Thanks to Mr T N Seshan, he set up a high tradition.
Till Seshan took over, people of India were not aware of the fact that the CEC had so much power...
You are right. There is a Supreme Court judgment that the Chief Election Commissioner cannot throw his hands up and appeal to God that he is helpless and divine help should come. The Constitution has given him all the powers to conduct free and fair elections. If there is no legal provision supporting him, whatever he says is the law. There are hidden reservoirs of powers where there is a legislative vacuum. Mr Seshan realised the full fact of this judgement and he started exercising it. 1991 was the turning point.
We tried to uphold and sometimes improve upon it and we had been able to enforce the code of conduct with a little more strictness. We received admiration from all over. It is not that we are patting ourselves on the back.
During the period of election, how do the political parties and politicians look at the powerhouse that is the Election Commission?
They know the EC is powerful during that period -- from the announcement of the date of elections till the announcement of the result of the elections. By and large, they behave. They do create problems too sometimes, but then immediately we assert our rights.
Do you consider Indian elections are relatively fairly conducted?
I can say by and large, it is fair and free. At least 80-90 pc we are fair and free. I will put it this way -- among the election commissions existing in many countries, India has one of the very few ones that are very independent.
Which country, according to you, conducts the fairest elections?
Australia is one of the countries where elections are fairly well conducted. Germany also. Maybe there are small countries too.
Though we are a subcontinent, the problems we face are continental in size! Considering the size of the population, language, communal and geographical differences and problems faced by the EC, it is probably the best.
Your book The Miracle of Democracy -- India's Amazing Journey has just released. Why did you decide to write a book?
I thought my experiences with regard to civil servants and politicians have a message to convey. I had situations where I had to strongly differ with the ministers. At one stage, I even thought I would put in my papers. I must say the government supported me. The minister went but I didn't go! There are a number of such incidents in my career. I feel there is an obnoxious nexus between civil servants and politicians which I feel we should arrest.
Similarly we have proliferation of political parties based on language, religion and what not. It is high time there are some changes in the election system. Today, whoever gets the maximum number of votes gets elected. Persons with even 10 pc votes can get elected. So, in my book I have suggested this system should change.
In what way should it change?
It could be proportional representation, or it could be what is known as mixed system where 50 pc is voted on this basis and the remaining 50 pc in the list system. It is there in Germany, Palestine etc where a national list is prepared where there will be a list of 40-50 people. You can tick and whoever gets the maximum votes will represent the country and not the constituency.
A change is necessary in India as I feel there is a threat to the unity and integrity of India. Unfortunately, the political parties are not taking the need for electoral reforms seriously.
Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj