‘There is no question of going back to the paper ballot’

The former Chief Election Commissioner on the EVM controversy, why the Supreme Court verdict on criminals in politics is a missed opportunity, and electoral bonds The debate on the reliability of electronic voting machines (EVMs) refuses to settle, with political parties continuing to voice their concerns about malfunctioning machines. Former Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi explains how EVMs work, why he is disappointed with the Supreme Court for refusing to bar politicians with serious criminal charges from contesting elections, and expresses concern over the growing number of hate speeches by senior leaders. Excerpts from an interview: You were upset that the Supreme Court refused to bar politicians who face serious criminal charges from contesting elections. For the last 20 years, the Election Commission, besides civil society, has been demanding that people who face criminal cases of a serious nature, which are pending, should be debarred from contesting elections. Even the Law Commission has demanded this. The standard defence of the politician is that you are presumed innocent until proven guilty. The second stand they take is that in politics, quite often the Opposition files false cases against opponents to defeat them judicially, if not politically, which is also a valid argument. The Election Commission’s response to this has been to ensure three safeguards. One, that every criminal case will not debar you [from contesting]; only heinous offences which carry imprisonment of five years or more will. Two, the FIR should have been registered at least six months before the election so that a case is not filed on the eve of the election. Three, a court of law should have framed the charges. The court of law in case of heinous offences would be the district and sessions court, which means the highest court below the high court. At one stage, the then Law Minister, Salman Khurshid, suggested that the Election Commission should change its formulation about registration of the case from six months before the election to one year. We said, no problem. Then he said, can we begin from the time the charge sheet is framed and not when an FIR is registered? We said we have no problem with that either. I called the Supreme Court judgment a missed opportunity because the ball is now in Parliament’s court. Parliament has refused to act for two decades. It is unlikely that it will act now. Asking MPs to pass a bill against themselves is futile. Surely it is the prerogative of Parliament to legislate? Of course. But let us now examine the legal maxim, innocent until proven guilty. There are four lakh prisoners in Indian jails today — 71% are undertrials. Yet, you have taken away four of their fundamental rights: the right to liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of occupation, and freedom of dignity. And the legal right to vote as well. If, under the presumption of innocence, you can take away their fundamental rights, what is the big deal about taking away the right to contest, which is not even a fundamental right? Why doesn’t the same presumption apply to undertrials? Another reason why it was a missed opportunity was that the Supreme Court did not even touch upon the issue of fast-tracking politicians’ cases, which is very much in its domain. In fact, in 2014, the apex court had already taken the view that all such cases must be disposed of within a year, failing which the concerned court should bring it to the notice of the Chief Justices of the respective high courts. The Law Minister wrote to all the States to help enforce this judgment. But the Supreme Court did not say a word about this. Often the public blames the Election Commission for its ineffectiveness in keeping criminals out. They don’t realise that disqualifying any candidate from contesting is the function of law. That is why the Election Commission is asking Parliament to legislate on the matter. The controversy surrounding EVMs refuses to die down. Recently, an EVM was found abandoned on a national highway in Rajasthan and another was found in an MLA’s house. Why not go back to the paper ballot? There is no question of going back to the paper ballot. EVMs are good and they have done India proud. However, they are machines — sometimes they malfunction. Out of 20 lakh machines in operation, a few hundred or thousand can malfunction. For these there is a clearly defined protocol: replace them within half an hour. But that is a lot, isn’t it? Enough to switch the fortunes of a party when cleverly manipulated? When there is malfunctioning, it doesn’t mean rigging or cheating. As soon as defects are detected, the machines have to be replaced within half an hour, for which reserved machines are kept in place. Twenty per cent reserve machines are on standby. In cities, these extra machines are kept in a roving vehicle so that they can reach a booth within half an hour following a complaint. In rural and remote areas, the extra machines are placed in the booth itself. Every single machine is individually tested and subjected to a mock poll thrice.

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