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'We ensured everybody could vote without fear'
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The battle for Gujarat

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December 22, 2007

In his first interview after successfully wrapping up the crucial Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami spoke exclusively to

As the nation waits for the people's verdict in Gujarat, the man who helmed the polls gives you a panoramic view of Gujarat and beyond.

Gopalaswami, who will soon be handling elections in Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chattisgadh and New Delhi, will also be the chief election commissioner if the general elections are held before April 2009, when he retires.

On how democracy reflects in free and fair elections:

In every election, we ensure that as per the expectations of the people we deliver free and fair election. Nothing more, nothing less. This is our commitment. Now, we have introduced various methodologies and various levels of checking in our system.

Previously, there was no practice of sending officers to various states to check when electoral rolls are under preparation. Now, not only do we send people from the Election Commission headquarters, we designate officers from various states and ask them to do random checking of electoral rolls.

We give them charge of districts and they perform their duty efficiently. In Gujarat also we assigned three groups who went to south Gujarat, Saurashtra, central and north Gujarat. They met political leaders and checked at random electoral rolls at district levels. They not only give us feedback but also tell us if procedures are being followed properly or not. This exercise gave us valuable inputs.

In Karnataka we have already designated chief election officers of West Bengal, UP, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Kerala [Images]. They have already visited the state, have met political leaders, and have done the survey of electoral roll.

I can frankly tell you that in last few elections that I have seen starting from Bihar, UP, Punjab and now Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh I can say that the booth capturing was not allowed. It's just not there. We do our best to stop bogus voting. I can't say we have eliminated it 100 per cent. There can be some stray cases but the situation is much better and, certainly,  organised bogus voting, if any, is a thing of past.

In Gujarat, on behalf of the Congress party someone had met me in Surat to tell me that the Electronic voting machine can be tampered with to register bogus votes. I told him that it is impossible. He said such a thing was demonstrated in Punjab and I told him we have no such records.

In fact in 2001, a group designated by the Congress had come to our office to have a look at the machines as requested by them in their petition before the high court. We allowed them to check the machine but they could not prove their claim. This voting machine is not connected to any central computer. It's a stand alone machine. Nothing can go out of the system because it's not integrated to any computer or any other equipment from outside.

On the importance of each and every vote:

In July 2007, we started looking at the electoral rolls in Gujarat. The voters strength in Gujarat is 3.65 crore. Around four lakh people have worked to hold the successful election in Gujarat.

This time we were very particular to add or delete names from electoral roll only after proper check and supported by paperwork. Every deletion was backed by written record. If someone was absent or if he had shifted, we took the statement of the landlord or from someone in the house and kept it on the record. In every case, we made sure we have reason to delete names.

If someone was dead, we obtained a copy from the birth and death register or statement of his/her relative or neighbour. In Uttar Pradesh, we saw people shifted to new locations but they don't delete the name from the old place. A similar situation existed in Gujarat. So in Gujarat also we prepared the list of voters who were not present at the location. We called them absent voters. We did not know if they were permanently absent or temporarily absent. So, when members of the house mentioned that someone is absent but he is a voter over there, we kept him in the "absent list." When told that he has shifted somewhere we included him as a shifted voter in new place where he has shifted. We didn't remove his name from old place because we have a set procedure for removal of the name. Wherever we could not adopt the procedure, we could not delete the name instead we put his name in the list of shifted voters. These list of "shifted" and "absent" voters amounted to nearly 28 lakhs in Gujarat. It's about 7.9 per cent of the total electorate.

After the UP elections we found that this figure will be around 6 to 8 per cent of the total electorate. In UP it was 7.5 per cent. So the absent voters were not a surprise to us. Our task was to monitor whether he will come back to old place to vote or there will be an attempt to indulge in bogus voting using the entry of absent voter. We had to take steps to ensure against anybody using information of absent or shifted voters to do bogus voting.

All the presiding officers were given the list of shifted and absent voters and as long as any voter's name was on the electoral roll, he can vote. If someone came, whose name was on the absent list or in the shifted voters list, the presiding officers were told to check that person's identity carefully. That is how we stopped any attempt to cast bogus vote.

We can tell you that only at two-three places stray cases of bogus voting are reported. We are focussed on it and we will remain alert.   

Amongst the Indian States, there is a difference in application and, the way they go about their work. I could easily say that in Gujarat, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu and in a few other states the work was done well and administratively they have the mechanism by which the record keeping is at its best.

There are states where record keeping is not as good and in these places additions and deletions of names from electoral roll needs careful checking.

We are proud that the scale of error in the case of eligible voters is not more than 2 to 3 per cent of any electoral list.

On the challenges facing a chief election commissioner:

Despite our best efforts we find that some eligible names remained out of the list.

I would say political parties and the Election Commission and the voters will have to play an equal part to correct the situation.

I must tell you that in Gujarat a large number of complaints were made of missing names in the voters list. We have inquired into all the 83 complaints related to 124 polling stations and we have found only two cases of mistakes.

In Ahmedabad, 83 houses of Harjanvas and 53 homes of Rabariwad in Neha park area were left out. That apart, no wholesale missing of voters has been found as alleged. At many places representatives of candidates had the municipal rolls in their hands and were directing voters to wrong polling stations.

We have nothing to do with the list of municipal voters. In some cases like in old Ahmedabad's Jamalpur area the allegation was made that some voters with identity cards were not allowed to vote. Their names were also present in Sarkhej so we asked them to select one place. These people selected Sarkhej and the Election Commission deleted their names from Jamalpur area but still, they came to Jamalpur to vote and naturally their names were not on the rolls there.

We have been asked to curb the expenditure of candidates. We are trying our best but we are not God. Despite all measures if candidates conceal and if people are bent upon breaching the law, they will find ways. We cannot reach every nook and corner of such concealment. As you know, we don't have unlimited resources. Candidates are adopting 100 different ways to conceal expenditure and we can not catch them in all 100 cases of breach of laws. They are interested in being elected that they are willing to lie about the real extent of expenditure. Why? We should ponder over: Why is winning at all cost, even in unethical ways, is necessary? Is it only because of only their overwhelming desire to serve the public?! On the issue of corrupt practices the accused candidate could be taken to the court and his or her election can be set aside. 

Some violations that do not fall under "corrupt practices" come under the purview of the code of conduct. However, if there is a case of breach of law we do file cases. The Election Commission is the umpire to decide about breach of code of conduct. This is not a law. Still, I don' think political parties take the Election Commission's remarks lightly.

Many do take it seriously. We have also the "brahmastra" to withdraw the symbol allotted to a political party but we will not use unless it is a very serious case of breach. Unfortunately if the whole idea is to win at any cost, the breach of code of conduct and election rules will go on.

On how the fear factor was mitigated:  

Looking at the communal history of Gujarat, we were quite aware that any attempt to polarise and communalise the situation, can be the culmination of fear factor for voters, and so should be eliminated. We had sufficient force to take care of polling stations. Our forces also managed to sanitise the area. We ensured that the voters could vote without fear.

I don't think the fear factor was prevalent in Gujarat in this election. We ensured that in all resettlement colonies everybody could vote without fear. We saw that too much congestion inside the polling station area creates problems. We instructed that in one building not more than 6 polling stations should be located. In one constituency, the people objected to the shifting of five polling booths because it could create difficulty for minority voters to cross over into a hostile area before reaching the polling station. We ensured proper bandobast on the road. In those five polling stations we saw the increase of 9 per cent voting.

On the role of election observers to help the election process:

I disagree with the view that the Election Commission should not ask for observers from various states. Observers are very crucial for fair elections. How can you argue both ways? We are using the officers only for 21 days. In a year, we avoid calling people more than once unless many elections come up during one particular year. For Gujarat, we needed around 250 observers, of which close to 60 were expenditure observers.

On the election ID card:

I think it is high time we made mandatory the Election ID card. Or we should have some national ID card. It will help solve the problem of shifting voters and absentee voters because it will be a single ID card, uniform, credible and reliable.

Gopalaswami spoke to Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt

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