New Delhi, March 5 :
Navin B. Chawla was chief election commissioner during the last Lok Sabha elections in 2009. With the schedule of 2014 elections announced Wednesday, Chawla, 68, told IANS that the electoral exercise was gigantic in scale and there is a large upsurge of interest among first-time young voters.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q.1. How is one Lok Sabha election different from the other?
A. The 2009 general election had about 716 million voters on the electoral rolls. In 2014, we may see as many as 814 million. There will also be many more young voters enrolled — as many as 23 million new voters in the age group of 18 to 19.
Q.2 What do you think are the most distinguishing feature of Indian elections?
A. Its sheer size but also its precision makes it indisputably the largest management exercise in the world.
Q.3. How will the 2014 general elections be different from others?
A. Every general election brings its own challenges. In this election there is a large upsurge of interest in first time voters. Also, conducting elections in some parts of the country is a major challenge. Let’s see how this plays out.
Q.4. How early does the poll panel begin its preparations for general election?
A. In many ways, the exercise to keep abreast of all relevant information that may be needed to prepare for so gigantic an exercise is a continuous process. However, the electoral roll revision process begins a few months earlier, so as to ensure an up-to-date electoral roll.
Q.5 What are the logistics of the poll? How many officials are involved directly and indirectly? How many security personnel are required?
A. In 2009, we had over eight million civilian (staff) and almost three million police force personnel all over the country, both directly and indirectly. As far as I can remember, about 640 companies of central forces were seconded to the Election Commission of India by the home ministry.
Q.6. How much expense does the election entail?
A. This is a difficult figure to fathom. But as the poll expense limit has been raised to Rs.70 lakh per candidate (maximum) for Lok Sabha elections, we can expect the figure to go up.
Q.7. What challenges does the poll panel face? What were the challenges you faced during the 2009 elections?
A. There were challenges that we anticipated and there were those we did not. First, there were many more nominations from independent candidates than we expected and these exceeded the number of EVMs (electronic voting machines) that we had. So after each phase of elections, we had to transport the spare, unused EVMs to the second-phase states and so on.
Again, we had a major challenge in the Naxal (left-extremists) areas, because they had threatened the election process itself. And the commission was determined to ensure that elections were held as scheduled. To complete the election there smoothly, safely and effectively was a challenge.
And third, I was also conscious that we could have disruptions elsewhere, so coordination mechanisms and excellent communication networks were established so that the commission was up-to-date, almost minute to minute, on relevant developments. These were just some of many issues that went into ensuring a free, fair, transparent, as well as effective and safe electoral process.
Q.8. How do you look at the poll percentage over the past few elections? Some state polls have registered record voting but the same cannot be said about general elections.
A. When almost 60 percent of 716 million voters exercised their franchise, that is by itself a huge achievement. State elections do often reflect higher figures.
Q.9. How do Indian general elections compare with polls in other countries in terms of size and complexity?
A. I have observed elections in so many countries. Even smaller countries have their own complexities. But for sheer size and numbers, there is nothing bigger than ours. It is the largest democratic mobilization in the world, of which we can be justifiably proud.
Q.10. What are the challenges to free and fair polls? How do you look at problem of paid news and use of money to influence voters close to elections?
A. These two issues you have raised, as well as the number of contestants with criminal antecedents, are our major negative points. We need to find answers for all of these three problems.
Q.11. Political parties seem to paying a lot of attention to young voters as also first time voters. How will it impact the elections and the polling?
A. I have addressed thousands of students all over the country in the last few years. Increasingly, I find them more interested in the political process. We saw how the young came out to vote in the recent round of assembly elections… I think it (their participation) will affect the outcome in many Lok Sabha constituencies. Let us wait and watch.
Q.12. How has the poll panel shared its expertise with other countries?
A. The Election Commission of India has lent its expertise to many electoral commissions that have sought our expertise, our training modules, or have wanted to watch our electoral process first hand.
Q.13. What is the scale of use of EVMs? How have they helped in curbing malpractices, saving money and ensuring speedy results?
A. Our EVMs have been described glowingly, interestingly enough, also by many high courts in judgments while examining petitions in the years gone by. It is, as I have often stated, an efficient and tamper-proof machine. It is, of course environment- friendly — it saves million of trees from being otherwise consumed. And can you imagine getting the election results in a country as large as ours, virtually by the end of a single day of counting. Many countries envy our success.
Q.14. How do you look at the experiment of paper trail and provision of NOTA (none of the above) option on ballot papers?
A. The paper trail will, I believe, be tried out in selected polling stations this time around. Regards NOTA, it was included to ensure the secrecy of the ballot (which a register could not maintain) and, so to that extent, it is successful and useful.
( An IANS interview by Prashant Sood )