I am not under any sort of pressure. The Opposition can only question us if we stop them from campaigning. The opportunities are equal for all, the CEC said.
Achal Kumar Joti, India's Chief Election Commissioner, on Monday rejected the Opposition's charge that the Election Commission is working under pressure from the ruling National Democratic Alliance.
CEC Achal Kumar Joti has denied taking favour from the Gujarat government ‘to let him stay at the Ahmedabad bungalow for over a year’.
Reports were rife that Joti continued to stay at the bungalow till late 2016, after he succeeded Nasim Zaidi as the head of the Election Commission.
The CEC said, "I vacated the Ahmedabad bungalow in October 2016. I paid the rent on a regular basis as per the Gujarat government norms. So it cannot be said that I took any undue favours from any government.”
He further said that he was allocated a house in Delhi only after a year of being appointed in the Election Commission.
Joti was the chief secretary of Gujarat when PM Modi was the chief minister.
He was appointed as the CEC on July 6, 2017.
In an exclusive interview to ANI, Joti said the Commission does not meddle in the poll campaign, and asserted that no special preference is being given to any political party.
"We have given equal opportunities to all political parties. We have not directed any party to hold or not to hold their rallies in the state. We are not meddling in their campaigns. Yesterday (Sunday), the prime minister went to Gujarat. Today (Monday), Rahul Gandhi will go. We are not giving any special preference to any political party," said Joti.
Asked as to why the Commission is silent on Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing schemes during his rallies in poll-bound state, Joti said political parties make poll promises during the campaign and the EC doesn't act till the model code of conduct comes in effect.
"I am not under any sort of pressure. The Opposition can only question us if we stop them from campaigning. The opportunities are equal for all. All parties make poll promises, even the opposition parties are promising lot of things we are not stopping anybody" he said.
Joti also said the EC has commenced discussions with the home ministry with regard to security and administrative staff deployment for the polls in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat.
"We have started our dialogue with the ministry of home affairs about deployment of central police forces. We will be preparing a data base for the staff, as more that 2.5 lakh government employees will be required for election duties as the total number of polling stations is 50,128. Facilities like water, sanitation have to be arranged.
"The biggest task is to install VVPATs (Voter-verified paper audit trail) in all polling stations in addition to EVMs. Every voter will be able to see his or her votes. This is the first time that we will using such huge numbers of VVPATs," he said.
He said multiple factors, including the weather, had come into play when deciding why to hold elections in Himachal Pradesh earlier than Gujarat.
Joti said political parties and the state administration in Himachal Pradesh had requested the EC to organise the polls before mid-November as there was probability of snowfall in three districts of the hill state.
"When we went to Himachal Pradesh, the state election commission there, political parties and the state administration had requested that on account of likelihood of snowfall, three districts -- Kinnaur, Lahaul Spiti and Chamba -- are likely to experience snowfall. Therefore, a request made to conduct the elections in early November so that voters do not get affected and can cast their votes," said Joti.
The CEC further asserted that the election commission would plan the poll schedule in Gujarat in such a way 'the outcome of the result should not affect the voting in Gujarat'.
"Another main reason is that Himachal and Gujarat are not adjoining states. The EC has always made sure that the voting pattern of one state does not affect the voting pattern of another state, and that is why the counting period in Himachal Pradesh has been kept on December 18, 2017.
"We had stated that we would plan the election schedule in Gujarat in such a way that polling in Gujarat is over prior to Himachal Pradesh assembly election result, so that the outcome of the result should not affect the voting in Gujarat," Joti said.
The CEC, citing an office memorandum issued by Ministry of Law and Justice in 2001 and approved by the Supreme Court, said, "The commission shall announce the date of any election which shall be a date ordinarily not more than three weeks prior to the date on which the notification is likely to be issued in wake of elections."
"The day we make the announcement, the model code of conduct is applied from that day till the poll is over. So, if the states share the border, it should have been an issue, but with Gujarat, the situation is very different," he said.
Further referring to the Gujarat floods, which claimed hundreds of lives and caused huge damage to infrastructure, the CEC averred that the state had to undergo restoration before elections could be organised.
Joti also underlined the fact that the government staff which would carry out the restoration work is the same lot which would carry out services during the elections. And that once the announcement for the polls is made the government employees will have to leave the restoration work and perform election related duties.
In July, parts of Gujarat were ravaged by incessant rains and floods that claimed more than 200 lives.
"And at a time when restoration work is done, it involves a lot of government force. A total of 26443 employees of the state government will be given election duties. So the staff, which manages the restoration work will only be assigned the election duties as we don't supply staff," he said.
"So, once the moral code of conduct is implemented these government employees will have to leave all the revamping and start performing their duties in connection with elections," he added.
IMAGE: CEC Achal Kumar Joti. Photograph: ANI