Mizzima recently had the opportunity to sit down in India with Mr SK Mendiratta, a former legal adviser to the Election Commission of India, who spent nearly 53 years in the role until he retired.
In this exclusive interview SK Mendiratta talks about the Indian election system and possible lessons for Myanmar as it approaches its 2020 elections.
You have a huge amount of experience with regards to the election. If I look as an outsider it is almost free of incidents and I haven’t heard much about any fraud, what makes the difference and what is your general observations on this (New Delhi local) election?
Well in this election almost everyone is hailing it as a free and fair election and we are happy that it was incident free and then people had the opportunity of going to the polling stations on their own, of their free will, they exercise their vote and of course the results will be announced after two days informal result but informal some people have already said, this party is winning, that party is losing, let us see the final result. So the election, everyone is saying that it was a good election.
I think one aspect of your election being a good election is using electronic methods, that is quite different, so what are the benefits of this?
Actually, I would say they brought about a revolutionary change in our election system. Previously, we had to use print. Millions and millions and millions of ballot posts. So we had to print at least one ballot paper for every elected and we have even in Delhi itself we had nearly 14 million or some voters. So about 15 million ballot papers we will have printed.
Now, one machine needs only one ballot paper, so you can just see the economy in terms of the money we are saving by printing only a few thousand ballot papers in comparison to lakhs and lakhs of ballot papers. And then another thing is that the production of the paper, on which we print the ballot papers, how many forests are being denuded? Now there is only a saving. I would say ecologically it is very, very useful instrument that we have introduced. And now, previously, people were finding some difficulty in putting their cross marks on the ballot paper. Sometimes their hands would shake, they would go this way, that way, which leads to a lot of trouble at the time of the counting, somebody would say no, no, this ballot paper is mine, no this is mine, and it would take, sometimes it would take three, four, five days also. And particularly in the big parliamentary elections, it used to take weeks, one week for counting, now it is only a matter of a few hours only.
You just see on the day of counting, you just press a button, and the whole result of the polling station comes in two or three minutes, whereas it was being counted for days and days, and now by the evening, you will know who is the next chief minister of Delhi. So that is a great ending. Previously, and another thing is, by the introduction of this system we have controlled the booth, some persons are going, taking possession of the ballot papers, just putting stamps, and putting them in the box. Within five minutes, they would just cast 300 or 500 votes and go away to the next polling station for the same exercise. But now here, one thing is needed for five ballot, so maximum five votes can be cast in one minute. So even if you want to cast, supposing, 200 bogus votes, you will have to sit in the polling station for nearly one hour, so then in that case our people will catch you there. Now these are all the things that we have now. These, all these benefits that I would say they are all now because of this new system.
I agree with the benefits you mention but I think when you introduced that balloting system, how did you manage to train people how to do that because many people were not used to that?
Actually, what we did we simply used we immediately started. People may not be knowing outside. We first introduced the voting machine system in 1982 and then of course there was some problem, the Supreme Court said you can’t use without an amendment with the law. Then the amendment was made in the law in 1989. Thereafter, we took another eight or nine years to train our people and then tell the political parties this is the system, this is the way in which the system works, and when they were satisfied, then only 1998 we started using, and in 2004 we used for the first time in the entire country and you know we have nearly one million polling stations, so we had to train lots, a large number of people, so that gradually, gradually we proceeded. So it was not that we immediately switched over. So a transition period was there for about eight-nine years, then now people are fully trained.
So for Myanmar we may be able to use in this kind of slow transition?
What about the investment? The machines may be expensive?
The machines are expensive but at least we have seen that a machine can be used for a minimum of at least three elections, so the money we have saved on the printing of ballot papers, the production of paper and then the marks and all those things, we have calculated it is better.
Let me go to the complaints. I read one report that mentioned that even in the Delhi election there were more than 20,000 complaints. But half of them were suddenly sorted out by the machine within a few minutes. So in terms of efficiency, handling the complaints, that is quite impressive.
No, this time the complaints were very few. And I was just listening to a press conference yesterday and they said only zero, zero three percent was the need for any replacement of any machine which we used in Delhi we used for the first time.
What helped in the reduction of the complaints?
No, actually, it may only be a few hundred.
No, actually if you just see that machine particularly that printing unit, there are so many connections and so many LED bulbs etc, so something may have gone wrong there.
So in general the complaints are very low?
Yes, very low.
You used to have a high number of complaints, right?
Yes. Now because of these improvements in our production of machines and then we have, the Election Commission has a very expert committee consisting of some highly qualified in this field, so they have also been helping the Election Commission, that is a way to have an improvement. Previously, the first machine we used, that was given the number M1, then in 2006, when we went for some more improvements, that was M2. Now, this is M3 now, so this is now more appreciated, more tamper-proof and more I would say error-free also.
I like the idea of special arrangement, special measure for the PWBs and the senior citizens. Also polling station arrangements. Yesterday, I saw a selfie post and I myself took myself. That was a good idea.
Yes, actually this PWB and this senior citizens, this is the first time the Election Commission has introduced this, because there was a long demand that cannot go to the polling stations, some special arrangement need to be made for them. So previously they were only given some preference when you go to the polling station, you were allowed to jump the queue. But this time the Election Commission has made special arrangements even for casting their votes at their own houses. Yes. I being 80, I was also offered the opportunity of casting a vote (at home). I said no, I would go there. So even there and cast, you see this.
That special arrangement for PWD, putting the selfie post, there were some discussions in my country as some people were worried about the cost. So is that costly?
Democracy is costly. So some costs you have to incur. The idea is to give more and more of this facility to the voter so that they can come and vote as large a number as possible.
We are the media so we should also know about the code of conduct related to the media. What are the code of conduct you think the media should be careful about, both in mainstream and social media?
Actually, the code of conduct, unfortunately for media, we don’t actually have any strict code of conduct, the ways we have a code of conduct for political parties and candidates. So it is not imposed by somebody else but it has a very long history, right from 1960, and that is code of conduct. Some political parties met and they decided among themselves, we of course helped them in arranging the meetings etc. So they themselves decided we should do this, we should not do this. So that ultimately became the code of conduct, and then ultimately the political parties said that is okay. Political parties and voters should do like this. But there should be some restrictions on the ruling parties also which run the government. So another chapter was added and saying that during this election period, the code of conduct is in operation. Ruling party will not do this. Ministers will not go, just they will have to, their agents, they alone can go to the polling stations, not, I am a minister, allow me to go, no. They are all prevented. Then during the election campaign, they have to observe certain norms. They should not make appeals on the grounds of religion, or some fiery speeches, so this is how they should not be going announcing new schemes and projects when the election process is on. These are all the things that have been put in the code. And somewhere some of the things are punishable under the general law. But otherwise there is nothing to say that if you violate you will be disqualified, that is not there.
And I noticed that one clause in the code of conduct, you have to remove the media, the social media, whatever media, you have to remove the media the image of the political parties. Can you elaborate more?
No, no, no, the major political parties, it is only from the government media or the government offices, etc. Otherwise, if in the social media, now people can pay, the only restriction is in regard to the forty-eight hours before the polling, that is the silent period. Otherwise everyone is free to give the advertisements in the newspaper and the TV channels. On the TV channels at least, under the Supreme Court direction, they have asked to get the text they want to say or show on the TV. That has to be pre-censored or pre-approved by the election machinery and there is a separate committee set up by the Election Commission in all states from where you have to get that approved because otherwise you may be using some derogatory against some other party and so then there will be complaints, and also, so Supreme Court itself has that, whatever is there in the moral code, that you will have to comply with, and for that you get your advertisements pre-approved as said by the committee.
But in the “silent days” you have to remove all this?
Yes, so in the silent period you can’t even use approved speeches, that is the law of the land.
Let me go to the fraud. I think India used to have a high number of, high level of bogus votes, fraud, but it has reduced.
Yes, actually now, with the time, firstly we have issue the photo ID cards, pre-elector now. So that photo identity card has to be produced at the time of the polling. So the polling officer also has a copy of the electoral role in which your photo is printed. So he or she will match and that you are the right person. And a lot of deployment of the central police forces is now taking place, so that is why people are afraid of going to the polling stations for the creation of some mischief, because they know they immediately somebody catches he will go to the jail. So that is also there, particularly, and deployment of adequate police forces at all polling stations, that has kept mischief makers away from polling stations.
So for a country like Myanmar, the democratic machine, this would be we had the first election in 2010 and 2015. So what is your suggestion?
No, suggestions, see, I don’t know whether your country is prepared to go for the voting machines. But that is a very good system. That is a very good system. And then I am not sure whether you have any modern code of conduct there. So you can also have a code of conduct and even there can be laws and so on that subject, of course we don’t believe in law, because law means filing a complaint to the police who will take years and years to decide. But the campaign is only around ten, eleven, twelve days, so what is the purpose of making a complaint when the damage is already done? So you must have seen in the newspapers, for the last few days, the moment somebody does something wrong, the Election Commission catches hold and then issues a circle notice. Sometimes they are debarred from taking further action in the campaign. So that is the way we try to deal with misdemeanour.
Do you have any additional comments?
I wish you every success for your elections to conduct the next election in a free and fair manner.