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May 28, 2001
The Rediff Interview/Chief Election Commissioner Dr M S Gill
Chief Election Commissioner Dr Manohar Singh Gill, who retires on June 13, is confident the employees of the commission will miss him after he's gone. He has good reason to think so. Gill is the longest serving election commissioner of India. Spanning nearly eight years (three months less than eight years, to be precise), his tenure has seen some revolutionary changes in the electoral system.
A mountaineer and farmer who is proud of his background, Gill is remembered for his contribution as the agriculture secretary of India.
And although Trinamul Congress president Mamata Banerjee has called him names and alleged that Gill colluded with the Communist Party of India, Marxist, and the National Democratic Alliance government to ensure her defeat in the recent assembly poll in West Bengal, he refuses to be drawn into a controversy.
The CEC spoke to Onkar Singh on his eventful tenure. Excerpts:
You will be retiring from office next month. Are you happy with what you have achieved?
I have done the best I was capable of and we have brought a considerable change in the functioning of the commission.
It is not just holding elections. Our duty involves much more than this. I think I do hold some sort of record of holding three parliamentary elections involving more than two billion people, 40-50 assembly elections and a vast number of bye-elections.
I am satisfied with what we have achieved in our own humble way. Imagine computerising an electoral roll of 620 million people. The constituency-wise data is available, both in the form of a book and a CD-ROM. I believe a clean electoral roll is the basis of a good democracy. One way to do it is make the information available even to a paanwala.
There was a lot of hue and cry in political circles about the use of electronic voting machines. But you have managed to use them without much protest. How did you manage this?
I know some people had apprehensions about the use of electronic voting machines, but we have used them successfully. Since 1998, I have been struggling to do it. I started off with states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, etc. We used these machines in Delhi, Haryana and Goa.
In the last parliamentary elections we used EVMs in 45 constituencies where more than six crore [60 million] voters cast their votes. It was used by more than 13 crore voters in difficult states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Pondicherry [this time].
As far as Assam is concerned, the media talked about the ULFA militancy and I had the capital city voting through these machines. My slogan is: 'New ways for the new century' -- voting cards and electronic machines to register votes.
I am confident that in the next parliamentary election, though I may not be there, India will vote electronically. I introduced the system of using Doordarshan and All India Radio as the medium for canvassing by political parties -- this is another way of state funding [of elections].
A committee was set up under the chairmanship of the late Indrajit Gupta to find out ways and means for state funding of elections. What happened to that?
I took the first step of giving prime time on radio and television to political parties to voice their point of view. It is a good step because it is money that cannot be misused. I think we have managed to do what we could. But there is so much more to do.
How do you explain the fact that people who had voting cards were not allowed to vote because their names were not in the voting lists?
I have answered this question before. As per the law, your right to vote is as per the voter's list and not by the card. Therefore you must make sure that your name is in the latest electoral roll. V P Singh did not have his name in the voting list and could not vote. Many others could not vote for the same reason. This could happen even by human error or by hera-pheri [devious deals]. We are talking of one billion people. Some discrepancies are bound to happen. Before every election you must ensure that your name is in the voters list. Even if the name has been removed by the badmashi [malpractice] of the local staff, you have got to get your name into the voters list. Neither Gill nor the commission can check every card that is made and ensure that it is right.
Was it easy to step into the shoes of a high-profile man like T N Seshan?
I do not want to discuss my predecessor. I can tell you that I wear my own shoes and that is where I step into. Please talk about me and nobody else. What you think about one particular person, I may think differently. I am a man of my own personality and India and the world know about it.
In spite of the commission's direction that a candidate convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act should be debarred from contesting elections, Jayalalitha is now the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.
I refuse to discuss anything relating to the present elections. Facts are before the people of India and let them decide the issue. I don't have to decide the issue. There are lots of judicial bodies in this country who will decide the issue later.
Mamata Banerjee alleged that you entered into a conspiracy with the BJP and CPI-M to ensure her defeat.
Let her say what she has to say. After the elections are over, politicians are bound to unleash some heat. If we are blamed for something we take it in our stride. My colleagues have already given a suitable answer.
In a democracy, politicians say things against the commission or members of the commission. It happens. I believe we should take such allegations calmly.
But personal charges have been levelled against the CEC by a politician whose party lost the election. Isn't this a bit odd?
Should the apex court lay down guidelines about who can contest elections and who cannot?
This is a constitutional situation and there are various wings of the Constitution which deal with it, including courts, the Election Commission, governors, the Law Commission, etc.
The chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir is talking about holding elections in the state. Do you foresee any difficulty in holding elections there?
No. We held elections in Jammu & Kashmir. International observers praised the Election Commission for holding elections in the trouble-torn state. Somebody should give credit to the Indian Election Commission for performing its duties against all odds and holding elections in violence-prone states like Jammu & Kashmir. I flew in a helicopter to avoid being shot by the militants. That election was accepted by the entire world. I hope there will be another election in the state. The commission will do even better.
Elections are also due in Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Punjab. Is the commission geared up to hold elections in these states?
Of course the commission is geared up to do that. We in the commission are in the process of carving out 70 constituencies for Uttaranchal. Once that is done, the election will be held there. The Punjab and UP elections will be well contested.
Some political parties have criticised one-day polls.
Not all the parties. One party in Assam wanted a three-day poll. Unfortunately, nobody in the press is willing to write something on this. Three-day polls might mean time to move security forces from one end of the state to another. But it also means moving booth-capturing teams and bogus voters from one place to another.
If the commission had gone for a three-day poll in Assam, that would have meant that counting would have been delayed in other states for 15 days. These are technical difficulties, which unfortunately nobody tries to understand.
In Nehru's time we had elections on one day. In 1996 and 1998 we held one-day polls in Assam. So if we ordered it again in Assam we did nothing wrong.
What do you think of your successor J M Lyngdoh?
He is a nice person to work with. I am glad that seniority has been kept in mind while selecting the head of the commission. He is a boxer and a tough guy.
What do you plan to do once you call it a day?
You never know what you are going to do next. I could not become chief secretary of Punjab despite all the experience I had. Then I landed up here in the commission. I guess I will be looking at various options. Maybe I'll read, travel to the mountains. I have passed the age of serious mountaineering though.
Do you think the people in the commission will miss you?
I do not know. I'll know six months later. I hope people will say: 'Gill Sahib, we miss you.'
Design: Dominic Xavier
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