July 3, 2019
Derek O’Brien speaks during a Short Duration Discussion on electoral reforms
I begin by thanking you, Sir, for allowing this Short Duration Discussion and also to thank my colleagues from the 14 political parties who discussed and signed the notice together. It’s a good tradition if you allow one such short discussion every week. The original notice, we had signed, had the title, ‘Electoral reforms for free and fair elections.’ But fair enough, Sir, in the way you have put it here as ‘Electoral reforms in the country.’
For my party, Trinamool, this is part of our DNA. We are one of the youngest national parties. Mamata Di wrote a book in 1995 called Janata Darbar that was all about electoral reforms. In the last 21 years, in every election we fought, electoral reform has always been in our Manifesto.
The precious vote, that is what I would basically like to speak on today, presents six problems as we see it, and then not find solutions to all the problems but at least present some solutions to the six problems we see.
This was the 392nd election conducted by the Election Commission of India and I am sure it is up to the people of India to judge what was said during the election. And allow me merely two minutes just to give you a few examples, the first being, whether we should leave the Army and the Armed Services completely out of the elections. The reason is that we had statements made like, “Can your first vote be in the name of martyrs who lost their lives in Pulwama?” Is this in the spirit of the Army and the Armed Services in the elections? Or this: “I want to ask my first ten voters, can your first vote be dedicated to the soldiers who conducted the Balakot strikes?” Is this the spirit of invoking the Army directly into the election process, because the Army belongs to us, the nation?
Sir, I’ll give you a few examples quickly and then I’ll move to the solutions. A retired Home Ministry joint secretary was looking after the CAPF, the Central Armed Police Forces. He had retired and then he was given a contractual job to continue in his post overseeing the CAPF, which is fine – this is routine but this is not perfect. But it becomes a little dodgy – and that’s why we wrote to the Election Commission – when that person’s wife is the candidate of a particular party in Bengal.
Sir, I’ll give you a few more examples. These are examples of leaders of the ruling party giving a direction, saying this or that police officer would be transferred, putting those checks, and then, almost on cue to a script, the respected Election Commission following those directions.
Sir, I’m not attributing motives; I haven’t mentioned a single political party, but I do believe we need to discuss the Election Commission because the Parliament is above the Election Commission, and I’ll talk about the Constituent Assembly debates which give us the power, and Parliament is above it.
Sir, I am only giving the facts. If we are talking about electoral reforms we have to understand one of the problems. For example, I am only quoting historical facts. For the first time in the history of Indian independence, Article 324 was invoked in my State. Campaigning was curtailed by full 24 hours giving no notice. One chief campaigner of a political party, finished all his campaigns. I am not mentioning any names, I don’t want to get into a tu tu main main, but these are the facts, and the election campaign was curtailed for the first time. Sir, the special observer in Odisha was suspended for checking a helicopter. Sir, we all know about the NaMo TV; nothing was done. Sir, NITI Aayog – there is available evidence here- shared government data for the election campaign.
Sir, let me come down to the first solution, I don’t want to go and give more examples.
Sir, I am looking for solutions am not looking for the problems, the problems have already been laid out. Sir, I have six points. The Constituent Assembly debates clearly state that Parliament is above the Election Commission. I have said this before on the floor of the House, Shibban Lal Saxena made it very clear that the Election Commission should be appointed by a two-thirds majority of Parliament.
I am not going into the Constituent Assembly debate, but I want to quote from the Constituent Assembly debate of what Dr Ambedkar said, “The tenure of the Election Commissioner cannot be made a fixed and secure tenure if there is no provision in the Constitution to prevent a fool or a naïve or a person who is likely to be under the thumb of the executive.” This is Dr Ambedkar’s speech from the Constituent Assembly debate.
We as Parliamentarians, that side and this side, have to take the responsibility to either amend the Constitution or bring legislation as to how the election commissioners are appointed.
Second point, Sir, out of the six. Influence of money in elections. All the media have enough stories and the facts are there as to who got what and how much they are spending. The problem is well known but what’s the solution. The solution was given first by Vajpayee ji in1962 in a Private Members’ Bill. We should read that Bill. It is about private funding. Solution was given by Indrajit Gupta where Dr Manmohan Singh, Somanth ji, Ramgopal ji, Mr Malhotra from the BJP were part of that committee. Trinamool from 1998 were on this.
Interesting thing from the 1999 BJP manifesto is: “We will introduce necessary electoral reform on the basis of the recommendations of the Indrajit Gupta committee, the Goswami committee and the Law Commission report so as to deal with the malaise of the defection, criminalisation, corruption and to prevent electoral malpractices”. So, I am very glad that the BJP in their 2009 manifesto said what they said.
The third problem, which has been a very huge problem, is EVM. We must not conclude or think if you are anti-EVM you are against technology. When the technology does not guarantee perfection then you need to question the technology. We want ballot papers. Quickly moving on because Satish Mishra ji and Kapil Sibal ji and the others will be talking in great details on this.
Sir, the fourth problem is the multi-phase elections. As you know Bengal, which has 42 seats, had its elections in 7 phases. I can have a full discussion on it and the country knows how these phases were done. Sir, the Prime Minister has also suggested ‘One Nation, One Election.” May be also one phase. We don’t know; our view is that let’s not rush into something. Discuss with constitutional experts, circulate a white paper and the get the political parties involved.
Sir, what I call them the ‘Cheat India’ platforms – be it Facebook or any other platform – international companies cannot interfere with indian elections. Sir, I am glad the Law Minister is also the IT Minister. We need to understand that there are companies that started in the 1990s, like Youtube and all. They were startups and so they were given immunity from publishing. This was started in the 1990s in America. When we came up with the IT Act here in 2000, these companies, in 2008 in the Amendment, in India got the same freebie. That means they were not responsible. Now, these companies are making big money, these companies are using algorithms to decide what goes and what remains; revisit the 2008 IT Act <interruptions> Sir I am talking about legislation I am not talking up in the air and I m not giving any examples, revisit the IT Act.
Sir, my last point is about data misuse and surrogate advertising. Data, as someone said, is the new oil. There are serious questions on data. Surrogate – what I mean is that if a political party advertises it goes into the political account but what happens to people like the Association of a Billion Minds and so many others? It’s like in whiskey, you cannot advertise the whiskey so you advertise the mineral water and the glass. Sir you can’t do that in an election. I am giving you the solution, because there is so much talk on data, we will give a notice to discuss how the data is being used, where the government data is being misused by companies like Jarvis Technology to target the voter.
Everyone is saying ‘women voted more’. Very good. We are also happy. But look into how many women were targeted after they got the gas cylinders through the data which is available, Sir. The data is available for free. Sir, I am happy that women have voted. My point is on misuse of data, Sir, and I have got the solution, in good spirit but not as an Opposition member because it is our data and it is our precious vote, Sir. <interruptions>
Sir, the sixth point. I have spoken about the Constituent Assembly, the money, the solution here <interruptions> The conclusion. In August 2017, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in their judgment on the right to privacy. They keep bringing up the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court said ‘we want to bring this Bill’. What have you done with the Right to Privacy Bill?
Sir, the last point I want to make is that the Data Protection Bill has still not been introduced in the Lok Sabha. Sir in 2017, in the same House many of us spoke. In 2017, we all debated the same issue in the Rajya Sabha. Secondly since 2017 to 2019, nothing has happened on electoral reforms. My third and last point Sir, for that precious vote to remain precious, Sir, we have to debate, deliberate and it’s time we also legislate on electoral reforms.