'The diversity of geography and demography of India is truly reflected in the challenges faced during the election process.'
'International observers have never been encouraged in India. The internal system of monitoring by neutral and senior government officers has become time tested and proving to be very useful during elections.'
'We, at the Commission, have to continuously strive to do things right and make sure that we conduct elections which are credible and transparent,' India's Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath tells Radhika Rajamani/Rediff.com in an exclusive interview.
Before assuming responsibility as Chief Election Commissioner V S Sampath had a distinguished tenure as a civil servant, both in Andhra Pradesh and the central government.
In spite of his hectic schedule, he took time off to grant Radhika Rajamani/Rediff.com an exclusive interview.
The number of voters for this Lok Sabha election has increased. What are the administrative challenges the Election Commission faces due to this?
There has been an increase of about 10 crore (100 million) voters between the 2009 and 2014 general elections. It mean we need more polling stations. We have added about 100,000 thousands polling stations across the country. This also means an increase in the size of the election machinery and security personnel.
Besides, there is also need to create auxiliary polling stations where the number of electors in a particular polling station is higher.
Also, summer elections have their own set of inconvenience from the voter's point of view. This needs to be taken into consideration in order to ensure higher voter turnout in spite of the hot weather.
The extended period of the election stretching for nearly a month must impose strains both on the Election Commission and state governments.
Indian elections represent one of the largest and most complex election management exercises in the world. This is the most demanding process not merely because of the extended period of election, but also otherwise.
In a vast country like India starting from the preparation of schedule and sequencing of elections in various states till the date of counting it has to be a focused exercise involving an election machinery of 11 million plus people.
The Election Commission is absolutely confident about handling this exercise effectively. The efficacy of Indian elections is time tested.
Have any steps being taken to deal with the election process in different states?
The diversity of geography and demography of India is truly reflected in the challenges faced during the election process. There are regional specific challenges. In some areas there could be pre-monsoon showers. Certain parts of the country are prone to acute summer heat in May. The election schedule takes this into account.
Besides from the security point of view, there are regional specific and location specific challenges. These problems have been identified and necessary precautionary measures are being taken.
There are areas which are relatively more sensitive from the election expenditure point of view. Necessary measures are being taken to tackle that.
Is the institution of election observers working well and is the Election Commission responding to feedback from them?
International observers have never been encouraged in India. The internal system of monitoring by neutral and senior government officers has become time tested and proving to be very useful during elections.
The Commission approaches the government well in advance to obtain the names of senior officers for the purpose of appointment as observers before any election.
Once the names are received, the officers are called for a briefing meeting to make them aware about the system of election and the points where they should focus while in field.
The officers are normally sent to the assigned constituency on the last day of filing of nominations and they remain in the constituency till the poll/re-poll, if the elections are phased, or till counting of votes if the elections are in single phase.
During their stay in the constituency, they send reports to the commission at regular intervals like on arrival, after finalisation of list of contesting candidates and so on. They also send reports on any issues they find abnormal on procedural, legal deviations by the field officials, candidates or their agents.
They hold regular meetings with the representatives of political parties and candidates to understand their worry lists and to build confidence among them for free and fair elections.
They allot time every day for meeting the public to accept complaints or for obtaining other inputs in their offices which is normally situated in returning officer's office premises.
On listening to any issue that may have a bearing on the elections they directly report to the Commission for corrective action.
On receipt of the report from an observer immediate action is taken by the Commission to ensure a free and fair election.
They also keep a close watch that the provisions of the Model Code of Conduct are implemented in the field. The observers ensure a regular and good co-ordination between the police and civil administration in order to achieve a level playing field and to ensure a peaceful election.
On the day of the poll, the observers tour the entire constituency and visit as many polling stations as they can to see that poll process is going on smoothly and as per procedure of law and as laid down by the Commission.
On the next day of poll the scrutiny of presiding officers' diaries and register of voters are done in their presence and re-poll, if any, is ordered if recommended by the RO in consultation with the observer.
On the day of counting of votes the observer, remains present throughout the process and in the end result of election is declared by the RO after taking written permission of the observer that the counting of votes has been done in a free and fair manner and there was no complaint from any of the candidates.
Thereafter, the observer submits a final report to the commission and leaves the constituency.
What is the difference between abstaining from voting and exercising NOTA (None Of The Above option)?
In India voting is not compulsory under law. Abstaining from voting would mean that an elector not going to the polling station to exercise his/her franchise.
Whereas exercising the option of NOTA would mean that s/he comes to polling station, records her/his arrival, goes to the ballot compartment and exercises the None of the Above option.
How challenging is it to conduct an Indian election?
Conducting free and fair elections is a challenging job for the Election Commission of India keeping in view various factors:
The number of voters which has increased to around 100 million between 2009 and 2014 require increased number of polling stations and more polling personnel to manage the elections. Nearly 100,000 new polling stations have been added now.
India is a vast country with diversity in geography and demography. Region specific challenges related to weather, law and order, topography are another set of challenges that have to be dealt with.
India being home to various religions and sects, communities and castes, with diverse culture and languages also poses challenge to the conduct of free and fair elections.
Another challenge is to engage more and more voters in the electoral process and ensure their ethical and inducement-free participation in voting. Achieving higher participation from women, youth and urban population is also focused at.
But the basic theme that makes the challenges easy to overcome is the commitment of the people who come out and vote expressing their will and their confidence in democracy.
It must be a satisfying job for you.
Of course, it gives satisfaction to deliver with sincerity a job mandated by the Constitution. But more importantly, the sense of responsibility in this regard is overwhelming.
One is guided by the understanding of the importance that free and fair polls carry for our democracy.
We, at the Commission, have to continuously strive to do things right and make sure that we conduct elections which are credible and transparent.
I also feel grateful in the confidence placed in us by all stakeholders and by the common citizens of India, which truly makes for our strength.