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Home / Politics / Policy /  National election is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any CEC: V.S. Sampath

India is set to witness one of its most important general elections, which will chart the course of the world’s biggest democracy in a tumultuous time. More than 814 million voters are registered to choose 543 representatives to the 16th Lok Sabha. At the helm of the expansive exercise is the electoral authority headed by Veeravalli Sundaram Sampath, the chief election commissioner (CEC) of India.

In an interview with Mint, Sampath, a 1973-batch Indian Administrative Service officer from the Andhra Pradesh cadre, spoke about overseeing the mammoth exercise, the challenges faced by the commission, conducting polls in the era of social media and the constitutional body’s views on opinion polls. Edited excerpts:

You are going to oversee the world’s largest democratic exercise ever. How do you feel?

For us at the Election Commission (EC), any election is as important. Whether we are conducting election for Karnataka, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh or Madhya Pradesh, we approach every election with the same amount of importance and significance. When it is a national election, yes, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any chief election commissioner. In that respect, yes, it has a special significance. But as far as importance is concerned, every election for the Election Commission is important.

What is the biggest challenge for the EC in conducting the upcoming polls?

The very magnitude of numbers. There are over 814 million voters and we have to ensure that our role is a dynamic one to resolve complaints such as the ones wherein someone, despite having an EPIC (Elector’s Photo Identity Card), can’t vote. Even if their numbers are a few thousand or a few hundreds in a city, it creates a lot of disaffection among the registered voters. This is one of the serious matters. How do we deal with it? What have we done? This is all about reaching out to people, at different levels—like our district election officers (DEOs) are constantly told that our role is dynamic, at any point of time anyone can go and check details on the website.

This is the first election that will take place in the context where social media is a dominant element. What is your approach to regulating it and how is the EC itself adapting to the social media age, in terms of disseminating information etc?

We have really not being adept in making use of social media. We know about social media and we know that others are making use of social media. We have to look at social media from the point of view of expenditure. When political parties use social media, along with their nomination they are also required to indicate their social media accounts and, along with other things, they also have to indicate how much is the amount incurred by them on the same.

As you know, there are enough practical problems. There have been some complaints that people could use social media to malign their opponents or to use it in the last 48 hours. We have been talking to social media agencies but unless they cooperate, this (regulation) is not something which can be done.

When you say you are talking to them, what exactly are you talking to them about?

For instance, they have a system of grievance officers. Our problem is more regarding violation of the model code of conduct. If somebody uses the social media to malign at the last minute some candidate and spoil his chances etc, how do you deal with this? Social media treats all alike, so anybody who has a grievance can go to the grievance officer. They don’t have a system of giving special preference to anyone. Also, all social media servers are outside the country.

You said you have not been very adept at using social media. Why?

The Election Commission has to be a responsible body. If anybody has to tell something, we should be able to respond; where there is a grievance, we should address. Social media is not the only way by which people can approach us for redressing a grievance…we are not an individual, we are an institution and we will be addressed as an institution. For performing our mandate, we are using whatever the traditional channels of access and grievance mechanism are.

For instance, in Delhi there were cameras installed during elections. One could go to the website and see online. Are we going to see something as innovative in this election as well?

Delhi was different—it is physically not possible (to do so everywhere). You take your cellphone and go to a polling booth in Ranchi and see how it works there or take it to a place like Chhattisgarh and see. Each place is different, what will work in Delhi may not work in an area like Thiruvallur or Nagercoil.

But everywhere Internet is available, people can go online and check their numbers. Even if you cannot, and a political party wants to make sure that their voters are intact, they can put a person in front of a computer and he can check on your behalf whether your name is there or not.

Secondly, in these elections, sms (short message service)-based enquiry is available. All that you have to do is if you have an EPIC, it will tell you the polling station number, etc. If it is not there, it will tell you that also. There is a helpline number—1950—which one can access. One more thing which we are doing is that we have announced one more day—a last minute chance—for everyone to check whether their name is there, on 9 March. We have also given instruction that after notification, no name shall be removed from the list.

Opinion polls gained a lot of traction. You have written to the law ministry, ministry of information and broadcasting and even the Press Council of India (PCI). Have you suggested a certain standard of conducting opinion polls in terms of sample size?

I don’t think we are doing anything. We have only asked the people who are experts in their subjects to do that. When you are looking at opinion polls, are we talking about a certain minimum standard because if you are doing a survey, there should be a certain minimum set of respondents or sample size. The NBSA (News Broadcasting Standards Authority) has given some guidelines. They have said that when you are conducting opinion polls, it is not more about conducting as it is about publication of opinion polls.

Opinion polls when conducted are of very low consequence to us. We are only concerned about the publication of opinion polls. In that, they (NBSA) have given some very good guidelines saying that when you publish that, you must say what is the sample size and who is the agency which has been commissioned to do it. So, you will know what is the interest there, and if it is a business house you will know what is their interest. Also, what is the margin of error and the various parameters of how you derive the results. Whatever is the methodology, you should openly inform.

And you fully support these recommendations that are put out by the NBSA?

Yes, naturally.

The ceiling for expenditure for Lok Sabha elections has been raised to 70 lakh now. Do you think that this figure will make people behave? Is that the idea?

Some people said 40 lakhs is less and unrealistic when it comes to actual requirements. In 70 lakhs, in those constituencies where one can manage a campaign within this, we expect that. In other places also, the extent of non-compliance will come down. It will definitely have an impact.

For the first time manifestos are under the model code of conduct. What kind of regulation is the Election Commission looking at?

The model code of conduct’s use or enforcement is substantially complaint-based. If there is a model code of conduct (in force) we don’t go around appointing thousands of people to go and check if there is a violation. It is basically complaint-based. Naturally we will address all complaints.

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