ECI has taken up issue of cleaning politics seriously
Born at Haldia near Khordha in Odisha, Dr Bhagbanprakash is well-known internationally. A progressive thinker, a reformer of Indian society, a true Gandhian, he has lent Midas’ touch to the institutions he worked for. As a human development strategist and expert in public policy and youth development and iconoclast, he dreamt of a classless and casteless society in India and abandoned his caste-indicating surname a long ago, followed by many. As chief of the world’s largest student-volunteer programme called NSS with four million volunteers, he built it brick by brick. He is the first person in the world who promoted the concept of Global Youth Development Index, now owned by the Commonwealth and the United Nations. Earlier, he had also played a key role in the reduction of voting age from 21 to 18 that enabled millions of youths to participate in the electoral process. In 2011, his strategy document YUVA-Youth United for Voter Awareness, adopted by the Election Commission of India, has contributed to a participation revolution in the country. Dr Bhagbanprakash has developed concept frameworks for a number of national and international institutions including India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management, South Asia Institute of Democracy and Electoral Studies and Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development. His other historic contributions are facilitating declaration of Kottayam in Kerala as India’s first fully literate city. He has visited more than 70 countries as Advisor to WHO, UNDP and Commonwealth. In a telephonic interview to The Pioneer, Dr Bhagbanprakash spoke to Sugyan Choudhury from his New Delhi headquarters.
You are a Senior Advisor to the Election Commission. Please tell us how to cleanse the politics of today of criminal elements?
My main role in the Election Commission of India (ECI) is developing the human resource. However, let me assure you that the commission is as worried about it as the people like you. It has already taken up the issue with the Government and has backed the move to prevent politicians facing trials in serious cases from contesting elections if there are charges already framed against them which are punishable with five years in jail. The Supreme Court has been requested to direct the Centre about it as it requires amendment of the Representation of People’s Act. The only caveat is that the charges should have been framed six months before the elections intended to avoid malicious or motivated action by political opponents.
What about inner party democracy and transparency in political parties’ own organisations?
This is another major concern and related to electoral reforms. Those who use democracy and all its tools to come to power have to practise these values in the running of their parties. When we expect free and fair democratic elections and a level-playing field, the same has to be practised inside the party too. The Election Commission has already informed the Supreme Court that the Parliament need to pass an amendment in law in order to empower the commission to frame needed guidelines to ensure transparency, accountability and democratic functioning of political parties. The commission has also asked for powers to deregister the political parties which violate these guidelines. The poll panel has been writing to successive governments and holding meetings with political parties to convince them about the need for electoral reforms.
It is said that you were the brain behind reduction of voting age from 21 to 18 years. Can you share how it was done?
It was a historic development, but I do not want to take the entire credit for this. As many big ideas are born in small places, it had happened in a small conference room in Bangalore when in 1985 India had joined the world in celebrating the International Year of the Youth. Here, I had argued in favour of the idea of reducing the voting age which eventually became part of the final declaration of conference recommendations and submitted to the Youth Ministry. The crux of my argument was if a youth at 18 could marry and become a parent, could become a soldier and defend the country, could drive a vehicle, could open an account, could go to a university, could take up a fulltime job and could be treated as an adult, why can’t he or she participate in the decision making processes and exercise their right political choice. Many came forward to support the idea including the then Prime Minister Sh. Rajiv Gandhi who included this in his party manifesto before elections. This eventually led to the 61st Constitutional Amendment Act, 1988. Since then, this important piece of legislation has transformed millions of young Indians from passive subjects to active citizens. Little things, innocuous experiments, small steps have a history of developing into big epoch-making events.
We hear you have also given a voter participation strategy to the Election Commission called YUVA. What is that?
As you know, young voters hold the key to India’s future as a democracy. YUVA is actually an acronym for Youth Unite for Voter Awareness. It has ten strategic components like analysing the social environment in which the youths live, building coalition of various youth volunteers organisations, focusing on low voter-turnout constituencies, increasing participation of young women, mobilising urban netizens, developing cultural habits of voting, celebrating National Voter’s Day, recognising contribution of volunteers in promoting voter awareness and finally putting a robust implementation and monitoring mechanism in place. YUVA gives a long list of reasons on why the youths must stop complaining and start voting. YUVA along with reinforcing voter education strategies of the SVEEP division in the Election Commission has proved to be a game-changer leading to increased voter participation from 56% in 2004 to about 67% as at present.
What are the preparations for the Bijepur bye-elections this month?
You can get the details about it from our Chief Electoral Officer of Odisha and concerned Returning Officer and the DEO. Like similar elections in other States, it will be free and fair and all necessary arrangements have been done. Key officials to be on election duty have been trained, electoral rolls have been updated and shared with contesting political parties. The process of identifying polling staffs and their randomised deployment have started. The people in charge of checking electronic voting machines and those in charge of security have been alerted. In addition to primary security duty of State police and armed forces, Central paramilitary units are also deployed to ensure neutrality in addition to poll observers. Further, webcasting of sensitive booths will also be done for monitoring the polling process. The Election Commission is always in a state of preparedness.
You have worn multiple caps in your long career in public service. Any reflections?
Each one was a challenge and an opportunity which I tried to convert into a mission. For instance, when Babri-Ram Janmabhumi, disputed structure was demolished, we mobilised a million youth volunteers and organised 5000 youths for social harmony camps in the country to cool down the tampers. When Kandhamal was burning with communal violence, we immediately formed a civil society network, Odisha Shanti Sadbhawna Abhiyan, to improve the situations through events like Gandhi Katha, peace marches and Antarang. When HIV/AIDS struck the country in 1980, we developed an innovative awareness campaign called ‘Universities Talk AIDS’ and turned the tide. It was internationally acclaimed. Subsequently in NACO, we framed a five-year strategic plan, National AIDS Control and Prevention Programme (NACP), that helped reverse the trend. The result is for everyone to see.
You are also an author and a popular columnist. What’s your latest publication?
I write regularly in my column Bikalpa Biswa in ‘Sambad’ mostly on development issues. My latest book ‘Lucy’s Children’ was released last year being acclaimed by many including former BBC chief n India Mark Tully, American Indologist Wendy Doniger and former Chief Election Commissioner and author Dr SY Quraishi. It is published by Vishwakarma Publication and now available on Amazon. The theme is unconventional and full of real life episodes. I can assure you it will not disappoint the readers.
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