“National elections may be held in five, six or seven phases,” Sampath said at an event at the Brookings Institute in Washington on Friday, an American think-tank, hosted in association with the US India Business Council and Confederation of Indian Industry.
He said the Election Commission (EC) has already started preparations for the 2014 elections in which 780 million people are likely to cast their vote at over 800,000 polling booths, using over 1.18 million electronic voting machines.
Without giving any details of the poll schedule, Sampath hinted that the election process could begin in mid-March and said the 16th general elections will elect 543 members.
“Indian elections never missed the deadline, even in most trying circumstances,” he said. “Preparation is on.”
“Tenure of the present Lok Sabha comes to an end on May 31. So the next House has to be before June 1. It is our responsibility to conduct the election before that date,” he said, adding that the number of phases has yet to be decided.
He said the notification for the election would be issued three weeks before the first date of the poll and announcement of the election comes another three weeks in advance.
“So six weeks before the actual first day of the poll, the Election Commission would make the announcement of the election,” he said, adding that the model code of conduct would come into force on the day the announcement is made.
“Summary Revision of electoral roll 2014 is in progress and India will have a new electoral roll published within a month,” he said, adding the EC will continue its efforts to enroll any missing people and weed out wrong ones till close to the polls.
“Our close review of election preparedness in each part of the country will begin soon. Will cover law and order, logistics, condition of polling stations, resources, men and material and equipment,” he said.
This would mean, he said, mobilisation of millions of temporary staff, supervisors and police forces and their planned deployment; putting in place sound mechanism to deal with possible threats like muscle power, money power and power of incumbency; creation of specific enforcement modules and imparting of time-bound training and scientific and comprehensive voter education and awareness measures to make the largest possible citizen participation.
Sampath said all stakeholders, including political parties, electoral officials, partner departments will be duly consulted before the poll schedule and programme is designed.
“There will be close coordination with weather department on climactic conditions, examination schedules, holiday and festivals calendar, harvesting times and the like, considering our plural society,” he said.
Fairness, impartiality and rigour enforcement will be the key character of the 2014 elections, he said, adding that the EC officials will travel across the length and breadth of the country and hold numerous consultations and reviews.
The EC, he said, has started election monitory wing to keep a tab on the expenses of candidates.
Describing “paid news” as a malaise, he said it would be included in the election expenses of a candidate.
A candidate would be subject to disqualification, if the election expenses limit is violated, he said. Right now paid news is not a penal offence.
Noting that Internet voting would be an ideal tool for voters like Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), he said the concerns about the possibility of tempering with the technology and the absence of tamper proof system dissuades the EC from exploring this option.
“We are very wary of internet voting as of now, because of possibility of tampering, possibility of fraud etc,” he said.
“Even in the EVMs (Electronic Voting Machine), the machine is always in our eye sight, even there we keep getting complaints from time to time. How far we would feel confident to allow internet voting? If that is done perhaps there will be solution for this (NRI voting),” he said.
Sampath said right now the NRIs can only seek enrolment, but there is no arrangement for them to cast their vote from the place of their residences, outside India.
“If they want to cast their vote, they would have to come to the country at the time of the election and vote. Because of this problem, there is no great enthusiasm among non-resident Indians even in enrolment,” he said.
“Millions of Indian live outside the country. People who have got enrolled are only less than 11,000. This is because there is no possibility of coming to India to vote,” he said.
“Two of the things, which can be thought of one is postal ballot. Under law these people are not eligible for postal vote,” he said, adding that even if they are it is humanly impossible to send postal ballots to NRIs in countries across the globe and get back the ballots within the 14 days period of election campaigning.
“Our own experience in postal ballots, even for defence forces, who are within the country, the number of people who are able to reach back is very few,” he said.
One of the objectives of Sampath’s visit to the US is to promote NRI enrolment so that when they are in India during an election cycle, they can cast their vote.