Digital campaigning helped in reducing hate speech: CEC Sushil Chandra

Chief election commissioner Sushil Chandra, who successfully oversaw Covid-safe polls in five states, and also decided on the new J&K constituency map as a member of the Delimitation Commission, spoke to Bharti Jain on a wide range of issues ahead of hanging up his boots. Excerpts from the interview:
In terms of Covid-safe strategy, how were the five state polls this year different from last year’s in states like West Bengal?
We had (advance) information that Omicron wave had set in. So we made a detailed plan on how to make the voter and voting process safe. We reviewed vaccination status in the five states. In 2-3, it was not good. Initially we completely banned physical rallies and decided to make our voters and poll officials fully vaccinated. We had weekly meetings with the health ministry to ascertain the vaccination position. Considering that, we developed a graded system (of relaxations). We made the district electoral officers (DEOs) and the chief secretary personally responsible (for enforcing restrictions). Political parties largely observed the restrictions after we took action against some initial violations.
Is digital campaigning, necessitated by Covid curbs, here to stay?
We should focus more on digital poll campaigns. We can reach each and every voter through advanced technology. Also, there is no problem regarding accounting of expenditure. The best part of digital campaigning is that it has reduced hate speech. The number of MCC (model code of conduct) complaints in recent assembly polls were much less.
By when do you think assembly polls can be held in J&K?
After this government notifies the new delimitation award, the EC will have to rationalize all polling stations and update J&K electoral rolls. A minimum period of three months is required (for both exercises). The commission will (thereafter) assess law and order and availability of central forces.
What is the status of simultaneous polls proposal?
I think time has come to consider simultaneous polls to save time, energy and money. But changes have to be made in the law and the Constitution. I think more deliberations are required on this issue. So far, the EC has powers to advance elections by six months. Can this be increased to one year? So in a given year, we can complete all elections (due) in one go. Or we can make an amendment that if an assembly is dissolved, there can be an alternative government rather than going for immediate poll. The EC can definitely conduct simultaneous polls. In a limited time of 4-5 months, all elections can be completed.
Do you see online voting as a reality in the near future?
I think for the credibility of voting, the confidence of all stakeholders is essential. A complete discussion is required as to whether there are enough safeguards in online voting for it to be accepted. Secrecy of vote and proper counting of votes is important… In the near future, with discussion and deliberation, we can move in that direction (online voting) on a pilot basis.
By when shall the reforms regarding four cutoff dates for new voter registration and EPIC-Aadhaar linkage be implemented?
Rules will have to be changed. We have already sent a draft of the new rules and electoral forms to the law ministry. Second part is preparation of IT infrastructure. By the end of September 2022, we should be in a position to register a person as soon as he or she turns 18, as per the four cutoff dates. We are also developing the system for EPIC-Aadhaar linkage; for that too we are changing the forms.
List a reform that EC wants approved on priority?
The EC has asked for power to deregister political parties. Around 2,600 political parties are registered, but only few participate in the electoral process. Like in 2019, only 700 participated. But the commission does not have any authority to deregister a party, even if they are not contesting the elections continuously or violating their party constitution. Some initial discussions have taken place with the law ministry, and we will further pursue this reform.
What are your post-retirement plans?
Reading books and enjoying old music. I may also write a book on my experiences over 43 years of service.