Need to Accord Priority to Voters’ Education to fill Knowledge gap of Voters Says Dr. Quraishi Expresses Concern Over Money Power and Paid News in Elections

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The following is the text of the keynote address of Dr. S.Y. Quraishi, Chief Election Commissioner of India delivered at the International Conference on “Best Electoral Practices” being organized on the eve of the launch of National Voters’ Day and valedictory function of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of the Election Commission of India here today. Over 30 heads of National Election Management Bodies and representatives of related international organizations, several Indian dignitaries, representatives of civil society, and other stakeholders are taking part in the conference. The conference will have as its topics:

(i)                 Voter’s Education-Towards a more Scientific and Comprehensive Approach.

(ii)               Electoral Participation- Involving the Youth.

(iii)             Innovative Practices in Election Management Bodies.

(iv)             Money Power in Elections.

(v)               Ensuring Autonomy for Election Management.

(vi)             Role of Technology in Election Management.

(vii)           Role of Civil Society in strengthening Electoral Democracy.

(viii)         Role of Media during Elections.

(ix)             National Education Experience- Highlights & Unique Features.

The Conference is expected to facilitate exchange of experience and expertise among major practitioners of electoral democracy.

“Excellencies, Dignitaries, Fellow Commissioners, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I extend you a hearty welcome to this very important conference. Around this date last year I had the privilege of meeting many of you at the inaugural of our Commission’s Diamond Jubilee. My warm greetings to each one of you, old and new friends, on this jubilant occasion of Election Commission of India.

I recall with great satisfaction the very successful Symposium that we had where we exchanged each other’s best practices.     It is a great pleasure indeed to meet once again for exchanging notes in the difficult but most worthwhile pursuit of fixing nuts and bolts of electoral democracy. Last year we had the fruitful experience of hearing one another’s election management ideas. We had also agreed at that time to continue this process of meeting and sharing ideas and experiences to our mutual benefit and improving and implementing the same in our electoral management system. That is how we all are here.

Let me reintroduce ourselves briefly.

Founders of modern India adopted universal adult suffrage thus reposing faith in the wisdom of the common Indian to elect his or her representatives to the seat of power. The Indian constitution mandates the Election Commission with superintendence, direction and control of elections to the offices of the President and the Vice-President of India, and all elections to Parliament and State legislatures. The Commission is a permanent, independent body insulated under the Constitution from executive interference. India’s judiciary has consistently guarded the powers and autonomy of the Election Commission, and has lent us even more authority from time to time.

The Commission has a very small secretariat in New Delhi, but for the conduct of elections, the President of India or the Governor of a State is under constitutional obligation to make available to the Election Commission the staff necessary for the discharge of its duties.

A unique instrument of free and fair elections is the Model Code of Conduct for the guidance of political parties and candidates.  MCC has no statutory backing and many of its provisions are not legally enforceable. However, public opinion is the moral sanction for its enforcement and hence, the Model Code of Conduct has evolved to be a Moral Code of Conduct. The Commission has been effectively using the MCC as a tool to ensure honest, free and fair elections in India.

During the last 60 years, the Election Commission of India has conducted 15 General Elections to the Lok Sabha(House of the People) and 326 general elections to State Legislative Assemblies, thus facilitating peaceful, orderly and democratic transfer of power. From the Himalayan heights to the deserts, from isolated islands to dense forests and other extremely difficult areas, the Election Commission endeavours to reach out with the firm conviction that the vote of every eligible Indian counts. In its delivery of free, fair and transparent polls, the Commission considers it sacred to stay uncompromising and to fiercely guard its credibility.

The Commission’s journey has also witnessed a change in both quality and scale of its operations.  In 1962, the voting process moved from the balloting system to marking system and then, from 2004 onwards, to the present system based on Electronic Voting Machines. Multi-member constituencies have given way to single member constituencies. Printed electoral rolls have now been substituted by computerized photo-electoral rolls. The Elector’s Photo Identity Cards (EPICs), by now a cherished possession of all citizens, were issued to over 582 million voters in time for General Election 2009. Elections to the 15th Lok Sabha held in April-May 2009 have been described as the biggest management event in the world. It involved 714 million voters, 835,000 polling stations, 1.2 million Electronic Voting Machines and 11 million polling personnel.    The management of elections in India has continually evolved, and still does, matching with the colossal proportions and ever-increasing complexity of the task.

I seek to present before you along with my opening remarks, two of the current ideas of the Commission, so that I do not make a separate demand for presentation, and to stay within the prescribed time limits.

First, our Commission has very actively embraced the path of inclusive elections, in which the fullest voluntary participation of all sections of people in the electoral process is a cherished goal. Commission does not want to leave voters participation to the selective whims of political parties. We created dynamic and proactive Voters Education and Electoral Participation Wing that would initiate scientifically planned interventions preceded by a comprehensive survey of Knowledge, Attitude, Behaviour and Practices among voters, prior to elections. We are seeking to ensure that Voter Education is imparted through specific and targeted interventions, backed by scientific research, carried out by professional agencies or institutions. There is a strongly felt need for a scientifically designed policy framework, clear guidelines, effective implementation, combined with widespread outreach programme, and, very importantly, a well established feedback mechanism for assessment of the impact made by the interventions. This would help in suitably modifying future strategies, programmes and interventions to educate the voters on all aspects of democratic and electoral processes. It will be apt to say that we are applying Social Marketing techniques in our voter participationprogrammes, with noticeable impact.

Our experience is that Voters’ education is not only the right but the most appropriate way to improve participation in a democracy. It is integral to election operations, and not an        add-on as some election managers would tend to think. There is a lot of gap between what the voters ‘should know’ and what they ‘actually know’ in important areas like registration, identity proofs, Polling Station location, use of ballot or Electronic Voting Machines, timings of the poll, do’s & don’ts with regard to a prescribed Code of Conduct, use of money, muscle and liquor power by candidates or their associates, to influence vulnerable sections of the electorate. These gaps exist because voters’ education has not been accorded priority by election managers.

We, in India, have to tread the last mile, where issues like healthy electoral rolls, urban apathy and youth indifference to the electoral process need to be tackled. Participation based on voluntary inclination and motivation of the individual voters and persuasion by election machinery, rather than compulsion needs to be encouraged. For this to happen, voter education holds the key.

To improve participation of all sections of the electorate, awareness levels need to be enhanced, especially amongst the freshly eligible youth, uneducated, residents of far-flung, inaccessible and remote areas, and socially and economically weaker sections of society.

In this endeavour, effective partnerships with educational institutions like Universities, Colleges, Senior Secondary/High Schools, Vocational Institutes etc. need to be carefully built in order to educate the students on the need for participation in the democratic electoral processes.

Large segments or sections of the electorate who are not covered by the formal educational system or those who have developed an indifferent attitude or those who are physically       cut-off from the mainstream for various reasons need to be brought under the ambit of focused voter education. Such segments need to be reached through civil society organizations, special agencies of volunteers, government departments working for the welfare of deprived and vulnerable sections or marginalized groups etc.

Excellencies, tomorrow you will be part of a historic moment in our electoral democracy. With you in the august audience, the President of India would launch India’s first National Voters’ Day, and that would mean that over five million Indian youth who turned 18 just 25 days back would receive their voter ID Cards in 800,000 simultaneous events at polling stations spread all over the Country during the same day. They are part of a total number of 17 million eligible Indian citizens who have been added to the electoral roll this week. The objective behind the National Voters’ Day is not the ceremony, but to integrate the youth with the electoral process by using voters education as the major strategy. The initial success has given us hopes that we can fully overcome youth indifference some time soon.

Our new strategy and follow up programmes have yielded significant results in two States of India, Jharkhand in 2009 and Bihar in 2010 where over 16% to 20% increase in voters’ participation was achieved against a very low base. The same determined approach of systematic voters’ education will be pursued in the five State elections that are coming up in the next couple of months.

I have a second specific reference in this address. That is money power in elections.  While our Commission had almost a full measure of success in dealing with muscle power and a high measure of success in dealing with incumbency power, the role of money power remains a big issue in Indian elections. We would like to hear your experiences. As Election Management Bodies, it is our solemn duty to protect the sanctity of our election process from the vicious influence of money power.  While our rules permit election expenditure of about 50,000 US dollars for a candidate contesting for the National Parliament and about 20,000 US dollars for contesting for the Provincial Assembly, unofficial estimates suggest amounts many times more being spent in canvassing for votes, including on allurements and illegitimate publicity.  Recently, we decided to step on the gas. We created a whole new Division at the Election Commission of India just a few months back for monitoring the election expenditures. In the very recent Elections to the Legislative Assembly of the State of Bihar, we introduced a novel practice whereby every contesting candidate was required to open a separate bank account for the purpose of incurring election expenditure. The candidates were specifically told that all the expenditure they incur for their election shall be drawn through this bank account only. We formed special teams which monitored, on the ground, the various activities of the candidates including taking videos/digital photos at events like meetings, rallies etc. These videos were analysed by another team. We had also ordered a shadow register of the expenditure of the contesting candidates to be maintained by the District Election Officer. We not only appointed senior revenue and taxation officials as Election Expenditure Observers to monitor the expenditure of the candidates, but also appointed Expenditure Micro Observers to work directly under them. These measures, I am happy to report, have had some salutary effect.  But it is a long road ahead. Our fight against the vicious influence of money in the elections will continue.

Excellencies, I will be interested to know, if you heard about something called ‘Paid News’ in your country. No, it is not a news programme on a channel. It is basically political advertisement in the garb of news for a consideration of cash or kind, and intended to be suppressed from reporting in election expenditure. Our Commission is concerned about the undue influence that paid news can create in the mind of the voter. The voters’ right to correct & unbiased information needs protection. Our second concern is that paid news hoodwinks the enforcement of the expenditure ceiling, a key component in election management, with particular importance for a level playing field. In our estimate, the problem of paid news is best addressed by self-regulation by media and political parties. But that is not happening. Exercise of undue influence is a misuse of media power and we need to intervene in the context of elections.

Paid news is a complex problem. There is circumstantial evidence of all type, but little proof. As Parliament, Government, Political Parties, Media, and the Press Council debated the issue over and over again, the Election Commission of India stepped forward to act. We have constituted state and district level committees with a mix of media professionals and revenue officials to investigate into cases of Paid News. We have set up vigilance cells that keep a close eye on whatever is published and broadcast, to watch aberrations. We have issued notices, and started hearing complaints. In a recent provincial general election, after 86 notices were issued, several candidates admitted to the charge and included expenditure on Paid News in their returns.  But this again is just the beginning of what looks to be an intriguing and long struggle.

I am very happy to note that in the present conference, at least three papers are being presented on the subject of ‘Money Power in Elections’.

Ladies and gentlemen, we all have a difficult task. To achieve it, we have to remain correct at all times, and deliver more efficiently than others. Being an exclusive working domain, our rules, skills and tools are special.  The best way to strengthen and fortify ourselves is to learn from each other and exchange expertise. Lets us do that with a strong intent in the next six hours. Even more important is the need to take clear note of practices that excite us with prospects of replication and follow up, bilaterally.

I look forward to continuing cooperation among Electoral Management Bodies and taking it to even higher level through this forum of sharing best practices, in the coming years. This bond deserves to be strengthened in our mutualinterest, and in the interest of electoral democracy across the world. I thank all of you for the overwhelming response to our invitation and travelling long distances. I wish all of you a pleasant stay in Delhi and a profitable as well as enjoyable conference. Thank you once again.”

 

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