Indore: Poll training given in locked rooms of colleges
Photo by Indranil MUKHERJEE / AFP
Indore: Poll training given in locked rooms of colleges Photo by Indranil MUKHERJEE / AFP

The Supreme Court recently rejected a petition which asked that “criminal” candidates be disqualified from contesting elections. These are candidates who have been charged with criminal cases such as murder, attempted murder, extortion, rape, kidnapping or embezzlement, but have not been convicted of that crime. Since court cases can go on for decades, and a person is innocent until proven guilty, such people are not barred by electoral law from contesting elections.

There is great anxiety about such tainted candidates in our legislatures, both at the state and Centre. About 1580 of the currently elected MP’s or MLA’s have criminal cases, which is roughly 33 per cent. Even the Prime Minister expressed this concern in one of his first speeches to Parliament back in 2014.

He urged the courts to fast-track the criminal cases, so that elected MP’s could either be acquitted or convicted and thrown out of the House. But that has not happened even after five years, since very limited fast tracking of cases happened that reached any quick disposal.

Hence, the petition was filed before the Supreme Court to disqualify, which was rejected by the apex court. But recognising the seriousness of the situation with one third of elected legislators having criminal cases, the court has urged the Election Commission and the political parties to disseminate widely the information about criminal cases.

In fact it said that such information should be published at least three times in newspapers, and prominently displayed on websites. In the forthcoming elections it would be interesting to see if this publicity serves as a deterrent to (a) giving tickets, and (b) to winning election. Many politicians take refuge by saying that the charges are trumped up, or politically motivated. But then the question is why don’t the candidates clear their name before entering the electoral fray.

Surely, a nation of 1.3 billion can find a few thousand untainted candidates who want to be in public service. The technology of dissemination can be used widely, including social media to highlight the criminal elements. An additional suggestion could be that the full details of criminal cases (via self declared affidavits) be pasted outside every voting booth.

This would be a last minute reminder to voters, about the tainted candidates. In fact, the election commission can also consider putting a red dot against the name of any candidate who has at least one criminal case, to really highlight his or her name, as per the directive of the Supreme Court.

Clean elections are not only about clean candidates, but also about clean electoral process. The EC is facing a huge challenge of the onslaught of money power, which completely distorts the electoral process. Offering a bribe to the voter is an electoral malpractice, which can instantly disqualify the candidate.

One technology, to ensure that such malpractice is caught red-handed, is to use the app called C-Vigil which is promoted by the EC. The mobile camera is able to record the time and place authenticated by GPS, and safely uploaded to the EC’s web-servers, protecting the anonymity of the whistleblower.

The video or photo evidence is enough for the EC to take action against. Such a technology is well tested, but whether voters will feel emboldened to upload their complaints remains to be seen. They may be hesitant, out of cynicism that no action will be taken, or due to their own digital illiteracy.

Another technology tool is installation of close circuit television (CCTV) cameras in voting booths. These need not be deployed in all booths, but at least in all sensitive areas. Any case of coercion, threats, tampering of the EVM should invite suo moto action from the EC.

A third example of technology intervention is monitoring of online payments. The banks can be told to report all large scale withdrawal of cash prior to elections, or unusually large number of transactions of identical amounts into voters bank account. This is to detect a sort of “direct-benefit-transfer” by political parties into voters’ accounts.

A fourth example is to monitor social media for fake news and hate speech, using algorithms and machine learning. One suggestion to Facebook is to introduce a prominent button called “Report” in addition to “Like” and “Share”, so that vigilant users can report abuse instantly.

The government has already told the social media companies to develop appropriate tools to monitor and quickly eliminate fake news and hate mongering. There is a limit on WhatsApp forwards to put a brake on viral spread of fake news or hate speech. Too many lynchings have happened due to spread of WhatsApp rumours.

The forthcoming national elections will be fiercely contested, with no holds barred, and much use of all the dirty tricks in the book. Many fact-checkers have sprung up, but a false video has to circulate only for a few days in the heat of elections to have deadly impact.

By the time it is reported as fake, and removed from the server, it would have achieved its purpose. And people who spread fake videos may not even be doing it out of malice or bad intent, but unwittingly. For example, recently a Telangana worker based in Saudi Arabia sent a 10 second video showing President Trump asking a kid about who is the greatest leader. The kid answers “Modi”.

The worker was overwhelmed and deeply moved by our PM’s popularity in distant America. He forwarded the video, which went viral. Unfortunately, the audio (not the video) was doctored, and similar clips were found to be circulated in other countries too (like in Venezuela, the kid answers “Maduro”). No amount of technology intervention can cure such gullibility or digital illiteracy. Even the best of algorithms cannot detect sophisticated audio and video morphing.

Hence, the use of technology is important, like reporting abuse using a cellphone camera to upload evidence, but it is not enough. Ultimately there is no substitute for the voter to be vigilant, skeptical, informed and ethical. The onus for clean elections is ultimately on the voter.

Ajit Ranade is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution. (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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