'Bribing voters is very, very less in Kerala; I would say, almost zero... Across the border, there is so much of money power during the elections.'
'People of Kerala do believe that politics can bring in good governance.'
"It is like a war. People see you only on the day of the war, but how well you prepare during peacetime determines how well you face the battle," Nalini Netto, the Chief Electoral Officer (and Additional Chief Secretary) of Kerala, below, left, tells Rediff.com's Shobha Warrier.
As the Chief Electoral Officer, is it easy for you to conduct elections in a literate state like Kerala?
Kerala being a literate state is an advantage, as people are aware of many things. The Model Code of Conduct was brought in by the politicians of Kerala. Only later, the entire country accepted it.
What are the advantages you see in conducting elections in Kerala?
More than literate, I would call Kerala a politically aware and conscious state which is absolutely essential to conduct free and fair elections.
People of Kerala do believe that politics can bring in good governance and that hope is the reason why we always have a high voter turn out.
We, as the Election Commission, have not done anything pro-active to make people come in very large numbers to vote, while many Election Commissions are doing that in other states.
We always had a base of 70 per cent and above voter turn out, which is very high. We have only ensured that the names are there in the voters list and polling stations are there.
We also have pockets of interior areas where accessibility is limited, where there is low voter turn out. I feel that awareness campaigns should be confined to such areas.
In most other areas if there is a low voter turn out, it is only because people have boycotted the polls deliberately.
Many states in India experience violence during the campaign and on the day of the election. Do you have to tackle election related violence in Kerala?
No. In fact, we are on the other side of the pendulum. As far as elections are concerned, Kerala is very peaceful.
I have conducted three elections so far, and this is my fourth, but I have not encountered any poll violence in this state
What about areas like Kannur where a lot of political violence take place?
In the areas where political consciousness is more and one party thinks of itself stronger, poll related violence takes place. We have to be a little pro-active there.
By pro-active, I mean, providing a level playing field which is the essence of conducting a fair election. No party should feel that the other party is getting an advantage.
In Kerala, there is a ruling front and a non-ruling front, and you also have other parties.
But no party should feel that the ruling party has an advantage.
When the parties feel that you are impartial, 50 per cent of your job is done.
There are parts of Kerala where political activism is much more than the other parts. Are there such sensitive areas in Kerala?
Sensitive is a very broad term.
The Election Commission now categorises some polling stations as critical polling booths.
We identify polling stations as critical when the polling is very high, like 90 per cent and above, or the winning candidate gets more than 75 per cent votes.
This shows there is a tilt towards one party or candidate.
If all voters do not have voter ID cards, that area comes under critical, but in Kerala, we have 100 per cent voter ID cards.
If there is election related violence in previous elections, and if problems are anticipated in an area, that comes under critical category.
Critical booths are well-covered by the Election Commission by having central paramilitary force manning the polling station, or we videograph or webcast the proceedings in the polling station or have a micro-observer there.
This is to increase the confidence of the people.
How many such critical polling stations are there in Kerala?
We are still evaluating.
Has the number increased in the last few years?
Not at all. There are certain pockets where political sensitivity is very high or awareness is very high like Kannur where there may be five such booths.
Do you experience political violence in such critical booths?
So far, we have not encountered any political violence during the elections.
In many states, money plays a major role in the elections and even in Tamil Nadu, many parties openly bribe voters...
Bribing voters is very, very less in Kerala; I would say, almost zero. It has puzzled me also.
Across the border, there is so much of money power during the elections. But I don't think in Kerala, people vote for money.
I have had one or two complaints, like saris being distributed in Palakkad, etc.
Even if you bribe the voters, parties know that people of Kerala will vote only for the candidate they want to.
There is no family voting in Kerala.
The head of the family has no say in who the family should vote for.
Brothers may vote for different political parties, father and children may vote for different parties, husband and wife may vote for different parties.
Yet there is peaceful co-existence. This is a phenomenon you will find only in Kerala, I think.
I did receive complaints, but things have not flared up.
Of course, the complaints do not come directly to me; it goes mostly to the Returning Officers. They have the powers to solve the issue and only if the candidates are not satisfied, would they come to me.
This is one election where social media is very active.
And with the advent of the social media, things are getting played up in a different way. It is very difficult to restrict social media. But I feel it will be a check on everybody.
Generally, what kind of complaints do you get in Kerala?
We need to have a good voters list. At the moment, I have very limited complaints from voters about not having their names not in the voters' list.
That is the complaint we get from the largest stakeholder, which is the voter.
Kerala is the first state to go 100 per cent online on voters list. Nobody needs to go anywhere now to check the list.
We published the roll on January 22 and gave people ample opportunity to check the roll either online or through SMS.
We have also ensured that the maximum number of polling booths are Basic Minimum Facilities compliant.
BMF compliant means they have ramps, electricity water supply, toilets, etc. In this also, we will be able to do a better job than many other states.
How early do you start preparing for an election?
It is like a war. People see you only on the day of the war, but how well you prepare during peacetime determines how well you face the battle.
It is consistent hard work involving a large number of people. It is team work.
We started our work in 2013 itself. The voter roll is what we start doing first.
Anybody who turns 18 can enroll himself as the summary revision starts every year before January.
This summary revision before an election is very important because it is this roll that is used in the election.
The booth-level officer goes out and searches for new enrolments and weed out the dead people and those who have moved out of a particular area.
If the electoral roll is not trim, whatever you do, your voter turn out will be low.
It is a challenge conducting elections in many states in India, as thugs prevent people from coming to vote...
There is something called the vulnerability mapping that the Election Commission has brought out.
You have to find out whether any group of people should be identified who would prevent people from coming to vote.
We have to identify such pockets and round up those who have been doing this.
Preventing people from coming to vote is very high in certain parts of the country. I don't think it is there in Kerala.
Were there any incidents of booth capturing in Kerala?
Nothing so far. We have 22,000 odd polling booths, but we have very few repolls; maybe 2 out of 22,000 odd polling booths -- that too because of some technical problem like the EVM not working or something like that, and not due to booth capturing.
Is it after T N Seshan executed his power as the Chief Election Commissioner that things have changed?
When Seshan became the CEC, the Election Commission became a force to reckon with.
People came to know there was an Election Commission.
The image people have of the EC is very important. They should know that it is a very neutral body.
When observers started going to places, people started feeling more confident.
It is because they know somebody from outside also can check the proceedings.
Yes, all this happened after Seshan became the CEC.
Are you pressurised in any way by politicians and political parties?
We are supposed to be above all that!
As the rules and regulations are well laid down, it is very easy for you to be neutral, if you want to be.
What is the day of the Chief Electoral Officer like on polling day?
It is a tense affair. The day prior to the poll is very important because the material dispatch like EVMs, voters list, etc. happens then.
You send about one-and-a-half lakh of people drafted for duties from various government jobs, to all parts of the state.
I always pray that officers go and come back healthy. We do have some casualties here and there, but nothing major.
We train these people in three rigorous training schedules on how to do the polling work. They do a mock poll also before the actual poll starts.
We do monitor everything from here as poll happens and ensure that everything goes smoothly. Our system of communication is very good.
The Collectors also have a communication plan. The police is also involved.
I would say there is a lot of management that goes prior to the poll day.
In Kerala, the polling gets over on April 10, but there will be long wait for the results to be out. How tense will these days be?
Yes, we have to guard the EVMs well. It is a responsibility, but it is not difficult.
Outside forces will guard for a little while, and then our police will do that.
There areas are well-notified. Political parties also can sit there. We have been used to guarding these EVMs.
After the elections are over?
Elections are like conducing a big mela. Once it is over, suddenly you find yourself without anybody around you.
You work 24x7 till that day, and one morning you find yourself with nothing to do.
You feel lost. You see a vacuum.
It is depressing to go into non-election mode after the election mode!
Image: A scene from Fort Kochi, Kerala. Photograph: Dan Istitene/Getty Images