Suicidal to stagger polls in Maoist areas: CEC (Interview)

New Delhi, April 18 (Inditop) Chief Election Commissioner N. Gopalaswami Saturday defended the poll panel’s move to include most Maoist affected constituencies in the first leg of Lok Sabha elections, saying it would have been “suicidal” if this was spread over another phase.

“We applied our minds to this issue carefully. It would have been suicidal if we had shifted some of the affected constituencies to another phase. Our security forces would have been sitting ducks then,” Gopalaswami told IANS in an interview.

At least 19 people were killed when Maoist guerrillas targeted polling officials and security personnel across a dozen constituencies in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Maharashtra as the first phase of parliamentary elections got off April 16.

“It is a totally misplaced argument to suggest that we should have staggered elections in the Naxal affected areas. It takes time to position security forces,” Gopalaswami said.

In his reckoning, the security forces were in position almost three weeks in advance for the first of the five-phased elections.

“It takes almost a week to reposition security forces. Many of them trek from the interiors and then take buses and trains to move to their constituencies. All this takes five to six days, and on the seventh day they are in position,” he said.

“This time we reduced the number of constituencies (in the first round) to 124. We did take all precautions just like we did when assembly elections were held in Chhattisgarh last year.”

Gopalaswami, who took charge of the Election Commission in June 2006, has no regrets that he will be bowing out before seeing the Lok Sabha election through. He demits office Monday.

“The Commission is there to oversee the elections. No, I have no regrets personally,” said Gopalaswami, an IAS officer of the 1966 batch.

Fondly called Gopu by some of his colleagues, he sparked off a huge row this year after he wrote to President Pratibha Patil recommending the removal of Election Commissioner Navin Chawla for his alleged partisan functioning.

In his nearly three years at the helm, Gopalaswami counts the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections held in 2007, which brought the Bahujan Samaj Party to power, as one of the high points in the Election Commission.

“Mapping of vulnerable voters in Uttar Pradesh was certainly a challenging task. Observers appointed by us had to do a lot of hand-holding to first identify these people and then get them to vote,” he said.

“Also, the introduction of booth level officers and agents helped greatly in making the elections easier. In the run up to the elections, both representatives of political parties and Election Commission interact to see that niggling problems are smoothened out.”

Gopalaswami hopes to join an NGO, Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections (FAME), to contribute to transparency and efficiency in the election process. Former Election Commission officials J.M. Lyngdoh and T.S. Krishnamurthy are associated with the NGO.