In a discussion on the ET Roundtable, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra defends holding polls amid the pandemic, stating that gatherings were only allowed when there were no cases. He dismissed accusations of bias against India’s Election Commission and stated that it has always provided a level playing field. Speaking of J&K demarcation, he said several parameters had to be taken into account, not just the population. fragments:

Has the EC misjudged the pandemic threat in Bangladesh polls relative to UP?

There was no miscalculation because no one can predict the speed or spread or extent of the pandemic. Appropriate precautions were then taken. The number of voters per booth was reduced and as soon as we saw an increase in Covid numbers, we stopped processions. But people were not vaccinated. There was no direct link between the demonstrations and the pandemic. In this election round, we have taken steps since the elections were announced on January 8th. Our polling station has been vaccinated. We have received weekly input from the Ministry of Health and the chief secretaries of the polling states. We had a clear position on the need to ramp up vaccination and the Ministry of Health coordinated with adequate supply of doses. We have banned gatherings from January 8 due to low vaccination coverage and have allowed gradual easing as vaccinations have gone up and cases have fallen.

Were there not similar discussions last year?

We have, however, consulted with the Ministry of Health. But it was felt that holding open demonstrations would not contribute to the pandemic (spread). Cases were low when polls were announced. In Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, nothing out of the ordinary has happened. Bengal was at its lowest when the polls were announced. When it rose sharply, we curtailed the rallies.

Political parties claim that the EC is the handmaiden of the government.

EC will never be biased against any party. These are baseless allegations. If you see MCC actions, FIRs filed, you will see that they are against all parties. It is wrong to say that the EC works in everyone’s favour. Whenever a party comes to us, we have always heard them. In these elections 12 meetings took place – five with Congress, three with SP and BJP, one with AITC. Where we believe that the level playing field is being disrupted, action has been taken. Our policy is transparent, as is our dealings with parties.

A strong digital campaign was conducted in these elections. Will it pave the way for digital voting in the future?

Remote voting is technologically possible. The day it happens, it will be a mature decision. However, that decision must be in the spirit of the voters and to the satisfaction of political parties. Since 2004, we’ve been holding elections using EVMs — four Lok Sabha elections and 137 assembly elections have been held so far. Even today you have people who say that EVMs can be hacked. The political party that loses always blames EVMs. That is why parties need to be aligned for every decision about digital voting.

Won’t incidents like the controversy over the EVM in Varanasi cast doubt on?

The public perception is not. This is only when political parties start to create a story, a misperception. There are three types of EVMs: the surveyed EVMs which are under triple layer security, under video surveillance and attended by representatives of political parties. Then there are staff training machines and voter awareness demo machines. No EVM poll has ever been released in Varanasi. No polling EVM has ever been compromised in any way. Staff training was to be held as it was the last day of the poll. This was a complete misrepresentation.

How effective is the EC at controlling illicit money in elections?

We are taking steps to monitor black money and the distribution of freebies. In this election, we seized 1,062 cr in cash, narcotics and freebies. We’ve authorized citizens through the CVIgil app to upload violations. 47,000 complaints were received on our app and 40,000 were correct and the EC took action. However, more can be done. We do have an expenditure ceiling for candidates and the EC monitors this, but there is no such ceiling for parties. So they can spend any amount. This should change somewhat so that there is a level playing field for all parties. Only then can the EC monitor these expenditures. We have not discussed it so far, but all parties will have to be on board for this step.

What about electoral bonds?

There are two aspects: financial transparency and electoral transparency. Why was this thought of in the first place? It was believed that clean money will come to political parties through checks and banking processes. But from the EC’s point of view, the donor’s name is missing, which goes against transparency. The matter is before SC.

There are concerns about the association of Aadhaar voter IDs.

No one will be denied registration in the absence of an Aadhaar number. The clutch is just to clean our roll position.

When can we expect elections in Jammu & Kashmir?

There are two different problems. One is the completion of the demarcation process and the other is the holding of elections by the ECI. The term of the separation panel expires on May 6, by which time we can complete that exercise. After that, ECI will update its electoral roll, the feasibility of conducting polls, assess security in J&K and then determine the election schedule.

What about objections to the draft proposals of the demarcation committee?

The main objection of the affiliated members is that this should be done on the basis of the number of inhabitants. However, Section 9 of the Demarcation Act states that as far as possible the constituencies (it is concerned) should be geographically compact, but four other parameters should be taken into account: the physical characteristics of the area, public convenience, communications and administrative units of the area.

Think of Gurez, who got a constituency of only 30,000 people on a hill. Its physical characteristics were such that it could not be merged with any other constituency. Likewise, we saw huge inequality in population. In Kishtwar it is 29 persons per square kilometer while in Srinagar it is 3,400 persons per square kilometer. How can the same standard be applied to both?

What about the controversy over including areas from Jammu in the new Anantnag parliamentary constituency?

Ultimately, it is one Union territory of Jammu & Kashmir, it cannot be divided into two zones. We see it as a whole. There are 90 constituencies (ACs) and five parliamentary constituencies (PCs) and we have tried to ensure the distribution so that there are 18 ACs in each PC — hence the composition of Anantnag.

What about requirements for representation of Kashmiri pandits?

Many representations came from different organizations. We cannot create a constituency based on religion.

What will happen to voters from West Pakistan who previously had no voting rights due to Article 370 and the 25 PoK seats?

Once the demarcation is over and when a summary is revised, anyone eligible will be enrolled as Section 370 is no longer in effect. The 24 POK seats will remain as they are as we are going to delineate the 90 assembly seats.

Your take on the ‘one nation, one poll’ idea?

The idea is good. There is no problem, provided the same is decided by Parliament. If we want simultaneous polls in 2024, a constitutional amendment will have to be made.

Why was there controversy about the EC’s attendance at a meeting with the PMO?

It was about reforms. The meeting took place with the EC team and we said that if the government is yet to be convinced of the proposed reforms, the Commission will explain. What is the illegality of speaking for five minutes?

This post There should be a limit on party spending, but they should all come on board: CEC Sushil Chandra

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