An Afternoon with Dr Quraishi, The Former Chief Election Commissioner
Anjana Ashok, UG22
On October 30th, the Ashoka Distinguished Policy Speaker Series hosted a talk with Dr S. Y. Quraishi, Former Chief Election Commissioner of India, on the topic ‘To What Extent Does Social Media Influence Elections?’. Dr S.Y. Quraishi joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1971, and after holding several strategic and key positions, rose to become the 17th Chief Election Commissioner of India. The first Muslim to be appointed to this post, he was the CEC from July 2010 to June 2012.
Despite his reputation and high level of accomplishment, Dr Quraishi entered the room with a warm smile. One of the first things he mentioned was that the topic on which he would speak was extremely broad. “I am an expert in discussing Indian elections, not in social media- that is something I’m sure you guys know better than me, though I am trying to learn.”
Throughout the lecture, he inserted bits of humour and interesting anecdotes that drew the audience in.
Dr Quraishi had a slideshow which he used to present the main subject matter. He opened with a quote by Aristotle which he felt summed up the day’s topic: “Man is a social animal”. He continued by saying that in this day and age, man is indeed a most social being, due to the reach of the internet. Over 90% of India’s population has access to the internet. He pulled up a slide titled Social Media in Numbers, using data to highlight the influence social media has on a person’s everyday lives.
It was then that he started drawing the parallel between social media and its influence on elections. First, he spoke about social media in political campaigning of the USA- in 2008, Barack Obama became the first ‘social media president’. In India, as of 2013, Modi became the ‘first social media prime minister’. Social media was also proved to sway the result by 3 to 4 per cent, which is more than enough to actively influence the outcome.
After this, Dr Quraishi moved on to the more negative effects of social media- namely fake news and hate speech. Public opinion can be the greatest tool or the greatest weapon to an election, and another negative aspect is lynching. He also spoke about the voluntary code of ethics. He closed the slideshow presentation by talking about the future of elections in India with the rapid growth of social media, saying that he hopes for more informed decisions and free fair elections.
Then, the moderator stepped in to ask a question of his own, “Do you think the abrogation of article 370 will lead to an increase in turnout in the coming years, or will it go down?”
Dr Quraishi answered that it was indeed a tough question. After a moment, he said that it would increase in Jammu and decrease in Kashmir. He then told a small anecdote about his time in the election commission, when there had been an election held in Kashmir.
There was also a question as to whether the BJP had manipulated the EVM, to which Dr, Quraishi responded, “I have been defending the EVM more than the election commission.”
However, he goes on to explain that despite this, he feels strongly that silence is not the option of the election commission, and it is important to answer all doubts. He stated that had it been him, he would have conducted a press conference to clear any and every query.
After this, the mic was handed over to the audience for a couple of questions. An undergrad student asked whether- now that those over 80 years of age are going to vote by ballot- the system seemed safe. Dr Quraishi jokingly answered, “It makes for a great picture.”
A ripple of chuckles passed through the room before he got more serious, saying that the concept is more citizen-friendly or the handicapped and the elderly, and it is good that they are trying to make it easy for them.
The second question had two parts- “How expensive is election conduction for the state? And how feasible is the concept of one nation, one election?”
Dr Quraishi smiled at this question, before informing his audience that Indian elections are cheapest- only 16 rupees per voter. This is because of the government staff. India has 11 million government staff members, which is more than the population of 60 countries. He also stated that when it comes to these staff, neutrality is non-negotiable
As for the concept of one nation, one state, he said that it has many benefits and many problems. He has written various articles on this topic, and he encouraged everyone to look them up online.
This was the final audience question of the afternoon. Dr Quraishi’s lecture held everyone in rapt attention for one hour. As he exited the room, he assured everyone that they could find him outside in case they had any more questions, thereby bringing the formal session to a close.