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'We have not become a better democracy'

May 18, 2005 10:15 IST

A day after retiring as the chief election commissioner, T S Krishnamurthy is a relaxed man. Perhaps after many days he had a Monday off and he utilised it by mostly staying at his 11A, Teen Murti Marg home in New Delhi.

Special Correspondent Salil Kumar caught up with the ex-CEC to talk about the Election Commission, democracy and electoral reforms.

Day one of retirement. How do you feel?

I am quite happy right now. I am quite relaxed. I have no problems in adjusting to the new, retired life. I will be devoting my time to a little bit of reading and catching up with some books and meeting some friends. I am quite happy and content.

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How do you view your years in the Election Commission?

It has been a very challenging period because we had to conduct parliamentary elections. We had to conduct some difficult state elections as well. The challenge was really significant.

We could also make some improvements in the manner of conducting elections. I think the parliamentary election 2004 was perhaps very important from the point of view of the Election Commission and the public because we used electronic voting machines in all the constituencies and this was also perhaps the least violent election compared to the other elections.

Which election did you find the most difficult?

I suppose every election has its own challenge. But perhaps there were more difficult situations in handling both Haryana and Bihar. You can say that there were more problems in Bihar.

What challenges does your successor face now?

I think the way we conduct our elections is the best answer that we can give to any person who is examining the Election Commission's role. I must say in the last 10 or 15 years many changes have taken place to improve the quality of elections. We tried to keep up that tradition and I am sure my successors would also be keen to keep up that tradition of free and fair elections and make further improvements.

Parties are becoming more aggressive these days and are keen to find fault with the Election Commission. I suppose that is part of democracy. We have to ensure that they have faith in the system. People have faith in the system of conducting elections. People are becoming more and more tough to handle. We have been able to use technology in a significant manner. I think in the years to come important areas like voter registration, enforcement of the model code of conduct, regulation of political parties will be very important.

There are many measures. Take, for instance, the filing of affidavits. But are they really effective? Do they reflect the reality?

As far as the affidavits are concerned the Supreme Court has said it is part of the right to information as far as the voters are concerned. They need to know more about the candidates. But as far as the accuracy or inaccuracy is concerned, the Supreme Court has pointed it out that the Election Commission cannot go into the veracity of the claims made in the affidavits, and if there are any grievances, the Supreme Court has indicated that they can go through what is known as the election petition.

Should the Election Commission be going into the veracity of the claims?

That role has not been given to us. If there is any misleading statement, under the Indian Penal Code there is provision for prosecuting the person who is giving false information and misleading a government servant.

Other than that the only course available is through the election petition.

The quality of elections is getting better. But have we become a better democracy?

Certainly not. Democracy is not merely the conduct of elections. Conduct of elections is stage 1 in a democratic set-up. Thereafter, the kind of governance you have, as the result of the candidates who have won elections and become part of the government, is a separate issue.

All that I can say is that elections provide an opportunity, if they are properly conducted, for people to have faith in the system of electing their representatives.

The representatives will also have some faith in the system to represent the people. But that alone is not adequate for good democracy.

How would you think of India as a democracy through the various decades?

Both plus and minus, because there are some areas where we can feel there has been improvement in election management, but there are increasing problems as well in regulating the political parties and the aggressive stance taken by some of the parties has resulted in violence in some areas and also raised other legal issues, like, for example, whether a criminal can be set up for the legislative assembly.

So it is becoming more and more difficult and I expect there to be further difficulty in the years to come. Parties are taking their issues very seriously.

What can be done to rectify this?

We have suggested some 22 proposals for improving the electoral system here. Apart from that there are a few issues like whether we should have proportional representation or a mixed system as it is in Germany so that no person with lesser number of votes -- for example, under the present system a person with 15 per cent votes can be, theoretically, representing the remaining 85 per cent.

So the mixed system of proportional representation and first past post system could be thought of but there is a need for public debate, public awareness and thereafter such steps need to be taken. Because the first past system that is prevalent now does not really represent a good democracy. Now that we have run a democracy for more than 50 years there is a need for debate in improving the electoral system.

What in your view will be a healthy step?

I would say that maybe 50 per cent of seats could be by the first past post system and the remaining could be by what is known as proportional representation. So that other parties that are not able to win can send some one or two representatives depending upon the votes polled.

That would make it little more representative in character than the present system.

And what can be done to improve our democracy as a whole, I am talking of political parties as well. For example an institution like the Election Commission, which was till now considered sacrosanct, is now being maligned. What can be done about those things? During the Gujarat election also there were such issues.

You see in a democratic system there are certain regulations. And if political parties have the wisdom and maturity to observe these regulations there is no problem. But with increasing population and increasing political awareness there are some parties representing a limited section of the people.

So small parties are coming up now representing either a particular caste or a religion or a group, and these things have created a little more confusion in the scenario. Even the formation of government, some of the small parties are able to dictate terms, so in order to get over this difficulty of Parliament being crowded with a number of representatives of small parties, it is worthwhile to consider a system of proportional representation and first past. That will go a long way in not only reducing the role of caste or community, but also will make the voter more nation consciousness rather than party of sectarian interest.

There are two or three alternatives. One is that there could be a prepoll alliance for political parties by which I mean that smaller parties can indicate clearly to which group they belong. It may be easier for them at the time of formation of government. Alternatively, as I said, a partial proportional representation may give importance to parties having a national outlook rather than regional or state outlook or sectarian outlook.

Lastly, what do you say about political parties personally targeting the Commission?

I presume you are referring to the recent incident. In the past also some parties have attacked (then Chief Election Commissioners) Mr Gill and Mr Lyngdoh and to some extent even me. I can only say it is very unfortunate. It is not in the interest of developing a healthy constitutional institution.

Photograph: Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images

Image: Uday Kuckian