The man behind clean polls in TN

Dr Naresh Gupta

As part of his daily constitutional, you can even spot him at the local ‘mandi’, unassumingly buying vegetables like any ‘aam aadmi’.  That is Naresh Gupta, a soft-spoken but a tough man. An unflinching Gandhian by persuasion, he left an indelible mark as Tamil Nadu’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO). The foundation he laid enabled his successor, Praveen Kumar, to run a relatively cleaner Assembly election this time in a state overweighed by money and muscle power in the recent past. 

Just when the national polity is undergoing a churning of sorts with Anna Hazare’s crusade against corruption in public life, the former bureaucrat walks through the heat and dust of small towns and talks to youth, as one of the most hotly-contested Assembly elections in recent years unfolded in the State in April.

The retired bureaucrat who laid down office as chief electoral officer in July 2010, after
tumultuous five and ahalf years in that post, recently also participated in a prayer meeting in Chennai in support of Anna Hazare’s ‘Gandhigiri’.

Chief Minister M Karunanidhi resented that Gutpa as CEO did not even make a courtesy call on him. But the EC rules “do not require one to do it,” Gupta says. He did not call on Ms Jayalalithaa either when she was the Chief Minister. Now, as DMK chief cries hoarse over the EC being too strict this time in checking the ruling party’s activities, Gupta is equally candid. In any State, the EC has to check the ruling party more as they have the official machinery’s advantage, including the police. It gave them an edge in distributing money to voters too. “So, to perceive the EC as pro-opposition is not only incorrect, but absurd,” counters Gupta mincing no words.

“Even as a college student in Lucknow , they used to call me Gandhi,” Naresh Gupta self-effacingly chuckled in a conversation with Deccan Herald. And with a degree in Gandhian Studies, he is even more passionate about electoral reforms, to make polls free and fair. 

The turning point, a nasty shocker at that, for the State was a by-election in Tirumangalam near Madurai in January 2009, where an unabashed ‘votes-for-cash’ drive, allegedly under the inspiration of the ruling DMK’s south zone organizer, M K Alagiri, even drew international atte­ntion. Tamil Nadu had not witne­ssed money and muscle power on such a scale in recent years.

Cleaning the Augean stables was no easy task as one risked crossing swords with a powerful political figure, the son of the DMK patriarch himself. It meant getting “dirty and smelly” as in the Greek mythological hostelry for horses. .

Building on some initiatives taken by the Election Commission of India itself before the May 2009 Lok Sabha polls, like ‘vulnerability mapping’ based on a constituency’s past history of electoral violence and so on, besides preparation of a ‘communication plan’ that linked the highest official to the lowest booth-level officer to enable speedy remedial
action, Gupta as the CEO further improved and fine-tuned them.

 Personally preparing training materials for different categories of officials responsible for running an election including Police, Gupta revamped the command chain through innovative, human-sensitive communicative protocols and even prepared videos on how to run a poll.

“A mock polling station was set up wherein different scenarios in polling situation were demonstrated to the polling officials,” recalls Gupta. “We began complete live recording of the poll process in a few polling stations to start with in Chennai and Kanniyakumari districts during the last Lok Sabha polls,” he said. 

This was considerably up-scaled in the subsequent seven by-elections to the Assembly, a big step forward. “We sourced laptops from local schools, mobilized computer-savvy students who were given an orientation with web cameras to record the poll procee­dings,” explained Gupta. All these could be seen and monitored, thanks to a central server  in Chennai.

It was simply using computer-based Information technology to the extent possible to curb poll irregularities, which he terms ‘video streaming’. Wherever BSNL connectivity was not available, the poll process was recorded in the hard disc in the laptops, then “copied into DVDs and sent to observers in the evening to see if there was any irregularity,” he said. This ensured that booth agents of various political parties behaved better to avert bogus voting. “This is the Hawthorne principle in play; if someone is observed (with webcams at booth level) he behaves better,” he reasons. 

Then Gupta improved on an ‘SMS-based poll monitoring’ system, first implemented in Tripura. He refined its software to get even every half-hour updates on poll percentages and other information that enabled officers to quickly act on any signal of bogus voting or any other problem.

“We had IT-savvy people including Joint CEO’s like Jayas­hree Muralidheeran and Pooja Kulkarni, and good support from Computer Maintenance Corporation and National Informatics Centre,” mused Gupta to drive home ‘Gandhigiri’ and IT helped to make the poll process transparent.

Though out of office before the Assembly poll in Tamil Nadu, Gupta’s inner convictions spurred him to bring out a “Charter on the Gandhian perspective on Elections”. It not only brought out the duties of voters, but also urged they should not accept money or gifts.

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