Appreciating the Election Commission of India
It is now more than 2 months since the results to the Lok Sabha elections were declared. Many of us are now looking at the post election scenario and have been caught up in the mood for change and the many decisions that the new Government is taking. Very few of us give a thought to the people who made the transition of government at the national level so smooth and devoid of any major turbulence. Only when we compare what is happening in Afghanistan or in Indonesia where elections were also held around the same time but the results are yet to be formally announced, will we understand the significance of the enormous task that the Election Commission of India (ECI) has undertaken be understood. Ever since the first general elections was held in 1952 to the recent one this year, the ECI has conducted itself admirably and with little or no public appreciation. In fact, we are quick to criticize them for everything from enforcing the model code of conduct, to partisanship to inaction after poll violations have been reported. As I sat a few weeks ago discussing with Mr. Sampath, the Chief Election Commissioner of India, I felt that it was time for us to understand how and what the ECI did to ensure a free and fair election this year.
The Enormity of the Electoral process: One can appreciate the enormity of the electoral process only when we come to appreciate that 834 million people were eligible to vote in this elections. This was 120 million more than the number of people who could vote in 2009. There were 0.923 million polling stations and required 4-5 persons per polling station along with the EVMs to conduct the elections. This is apart from the large number of security personnel drawn from the central police and para-military forces. We need to see this in comparison to the fact the number of voters in India far exceeded the number of voters in all the European countries and the United States put together. Keeping the geographical spread of the country and the need to ensure that the elections had to be conducted in a free and fair manner amidst proper security with the fair enforcement of the model code of conduct; the elections were held over 9 phases between the 7th April and the 12th of May. And we need to remember that the general elections till 1962 were all one-day affairs. The date of announcement of the general elections was made by the Chief Election Commissioner on the 5th of March and followed up within 2-3 weeks by the Presidential notification formally kick starting the process. The counting from the EVM machines used was done on a single day on the 16th of May and the results nation wide was known by 2 p.m. This was surely the largest democratic exercise held anywhere in the world. This quick declaration of results also ensured a smooth transition of power.
Using EVMs: The Electronic Voting Machines are all made in India and are now becoming a regular feature in all our elections. They have been an object of criticism from the time they were introduced. In the words of the CEC himself, “Earlier political parties which lost the elections used to criticize the use of EVMs; now we have moved on to only a few candidates criticizing them.” Apart from carrying the names and symbols of each of the candidates, they also now have the ‘None of the above’ (NOTA) option. The EVMs are always kept in physical custody in sealed godowns before and after the elections. Checking them begins 6 months before the elections and they are all shown to each of the political parties by the district administration all over the country. 5% of the machines used across the nation are tested and checked thoroughly for their functionality. As a 2nd level measure, the candidate settings are checked before the polls and the agents at each polling booth can also perform agent checks. At 6 a.m on the day of the polls, the final check is done in front of the candidate or his representative by undertaking 50 button presses and only then is the machine finally used in the polls.
Model Code of Conduct: The Model code of conduct is a uniquely Indian innovation in the electoral process and comes into force the day the CEC announces the calendar of events. This is to facilitate a level playing field and prevent the party in power to indulge in what can be construed as an attempt to induce or influence the voter by different means. Our politicians are also becoming cleverer and have started offering inducements much before the elections are announced. Many candidates know that they are likely to be nominated by their parties and begin to canvass and offer different inducements to the electorate much earlier itself.
Monitoring the election process: Such a large exercise can truly be a nightmare to monitor and ensure that it is free and fair. A large number of reliable and impartial personnel are needed to do this. The ECI uses its constitutional powers to draw personnel from different states and at many levels to ensure this. The ECI has now introduced the concept of observers. To ensure political neutrality and that they are not coerced to perform in a particular way, the observers are not posted to the states of origin or work. There are two kinds of these 1200 observers – General observers who observe the general conduct and the Expenditure observers who watch over the expenses incurred by the candidates. The campaigning as well as the actual voting across the country is also videographed and the digital records stored by the ECI. The entire campaigning is recorded in a Shadow Observation Register and the activities undertaken by the candidates for the period between 14-21 days is fully recorded. The election authorities reconcile this register with the information provided by the candidate after the polling is over. Aggrieved candidates can submit a election petition within 45 days of the results being announced to the local High Court, which functions as the Election tribunal. Security to the entire machinery and the process is provided by a large number of personnel drawn from CISF, CRF and the state police and the Armed Reserve Police. As a policy, the military is not used in providing security during the elections.
Innovations used in the 2014 General Elections: The ECI is constantly trying to ensure that more and more citizens involve themselves in the election process. We must bear in mind that voter enrolment in India is voluntary and voters can only be motivated to participate by appealing to their sense of citizenship. The ECI had introduced the SVEEP campaign through their own machinery and with the help of NGOs and CSOs across the country and this has surely helped increase the voter participation to an all time high in the country. The ECI also ensured the provision of voter ID slips to the voters at the booth level itself and gave repeated opportunities for them to verify their names and other relevant details. Providing the signed printout of the voter card with the photo of the voters and permitting their use, as a Voter ID card in this election was another first. The Election Commission also extended the working hours and voting began at 7 a.m and went on till 6 p.m. The presiding officers were also instructed to keep the polling booths open till the last person in line (at 6 p.m) got to vote. All the polling booths were also provided with basic amenities for the personnel and in line with the Supreme Court directions, a few polling stations had the voter verifiable paper trails created.
Challenges in front of the ECI: Despite all that is being done, the ECI does face many challenges. Sustaining voter interest & motivation in a growing population is no easy task, especially when voter cynicism easily creeps in. Ensuring updated rolls and inclusiveness is a real challenge and we had situations (in Mumbai and other places) where large numbers of people were excluded from the rolls. Dependence on physical forces to monitor and ensure security is also another huge challenge. The election commission needs to move on to other monitoring methods, especially as the campaign environment is now evolving with advances in digital technology and social media. The ECI was also challenged this time in selecting local partners to work with in SVEEP campaigns as some of them had political affiliations. Sustaining the independence of the ECI is also another key issue for the ECI. The Commissioners are appointed by the political system and they need to ensure the standards set are kept up without fear or favour to anyone. Article 324 gives them Constitutional protection and an impeachment process can only remove the Commissioners and this should ensure that they function with total independence. As monitoring methods evolve, so do the voter inducements given by the candidates and the parties. The election commission needs to appreciate that voters are willingly participating in accepting the inducements and curtailing them is going to be a major challenge. Ensuring that ruling parties do not offer inducements, as state patronage is also another issue. The ECI has traditionally been distant from the citizens and political parties and they need to over haul their PR and Communication strategies. They need to ensure that their actions are widely disseminated and voter engagement has to go beyond being mere events during elections to a sustained democratic process in between elections too. They need to work with the Government of the day in removing the dichotomy of laws with reference to technology, Internet, Television and usage of Social media. And finally we need to remember that our politicians carry no scruples when it comes to winning the elections and the ECI must be in a state of constant evolution and one step ahead of them in dealing with them and giving us a free and fair election process.
General Elections in India are easily the world’s largest democratic dance. Conducting them smoothly is indeed a tribute to our system and to the millions of Indians who make it possible each time. Integrating the lessons of interdepartmental convergence, coordination and efficiency that our elections demonstrate in other public services too will surely take our country to the next level.