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For Jammu and Kashmir, Election Commission has a strategy in place

Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa talks about the challenges EC is facing ahead of the April-May poll and how it has been dealing with them

, ET Bureau|
Mar 09, 2019, 11.00 PM IST
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Elections in J&K will be conducted in such a way that it will be easier for the forces to move, says Ashok Lavasa.

Conducting elections in Jammu and Kashmir and Naxal-hit Bastar in Chhattisgarh will be the key challenges for the Election Commission of India, which is set to announce the dates for the Lok Sabha poll anytime now.

With about one million polling booths — 10% more than in the 2014 parliamentary elections — being installed across the country for over 880 million voters, India is gearing up for the world’s biggest display of democracy again. Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa talks about the challenges EC is facing ahead of the April-May poll and how it has been dealing with them in an interview with ET. Edited excerpts:

Are you deploying any specific strategy for Jammu and Kashmir and Naxal-hit areas?
Conducting elections in areas affected by LWE (Left Wing Extremism) is always a challenge. The percentage of voters in those areas still went up to about 76% in the recent state elections even though threats were issued by Maoists. We are expecting an even better participation during this election. For Jammu and Kashmir, we have a strategy in place. I can’t disclose much at this stage, but elections will be conducted in such a way that it will be easier for the forces to move. We will take all the necessary steps to ensure that elections in Jammu and Kashmir are held in the most peaceful, and free and fair manner.

What about muscle and money power? Isn’t that also a big challenge?
As far as booth capturing is concerned, it’s history now. The Election Commission has always been concerned about the misuse of money. There will be a greater focus on constituencies that are more susceptible to the misuse of money power. Also, the cVIGIL mobile app, through which citizens can complain of such misuse, will be used nationwide, for the first time. In the recently held state elections, we received about 20,000 complaints, of which 70% turned out to be correct.

There has been criticism that EC at times works under government pressure. How do you respond to that?
It’s a free country. We can’t stop people from making accusations. The EC has a job to do. We have a constitutional mandate and we adhere to that. I want to reassure the people of India that the Election Commission never acts under pressure from anyone.

VVPAT (voter verifiable paper audit trail) developed snags in the by-elections in Kairana (Uttar Pradesh) and Gondiya (Maharashtra) in May last year. It was said that heat was a reason for VVPAT failure. Have you taken any precaution as the Lok Sabha poll will be held in summer?
The heat-related problems in VVPAT have already been addressed. It won’t malfunction in the coming poll. In the recent elections in five states, more than 1.74 lakh machines were used. The VVPAT failure rate in Chhattisgarh, for example, was less than 1.7%.

Some political parties demanded a return to the ballot. What’s your take?
The political representations that we had received did not ask for a return to the ballot, but to increase the number of VVPATs. According to the EC’s existing policy, we recount the paper trails in one polling station in one assembly segment, randomly. This is to crosscheck if there’s any variation between the EVM’s results and the VVPAT count. Till now, there have been 1,500 VVPAT counts in the past elections. Not in a single count has there been any variation. Some political parties are demanding that we count VVPAT in 50% polling stations. The EC has asked the Indian Statistical Institute to recommend to us as to what should be a scientific and rational size for random sampling.

In the recent state elections, there were reports of EVMs lying in front of private residences. Why can’t the EC stop such incidents?
In a total 1.74 lakh polling stations, there were six such instances of EVMs or VVPATs being mishandled during transportation. Yes, we agree, not even these six incidents should have taken place. But let me clarify that none of these six machines was used for voting. All those were under reserve.

It so happens that all three election commissioners (Sunil Arora, Ashok Lavasa and Sushil Chandra) are from the same batch of civil services — 1980. How is the camaraderie?
We are brothers in arms.
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