Tehelka Story: Democracy at its Best

Author: Seema Guha


Delegates from 18 countries got a ring-side view of the most gigantic and complex election in the world, and were impressed by how India pulled it off. Seema Guha reports.


India held the world’s largest and most complex election through April and May, which saw the rout of the Congress and brought to power a new government led by Narendra Modi of the BJP. Two-thirds of the 835 million people on the voter lists painstakingly prepared by the Election Commission (EC) of India had turned out to cast their vote. While Indians have come to take this mind-boggling exercise for granted, the rest of the world has not.


To make sense of how the country manages to involve such a huge and complex electorate in the celebration of democracy, the UN had signed a memorandum of understanding with the EC in 2012 to allow representatives from other developing countries to get a ring-side view of Indian elections. The idea was to enable the visitors “to see the way the world’s largest democracy is putting into action a set of procedures that ensures that democracy really works, and can be made free and fair in the most difficult of circumstances”. As Lise Grande, UN Resident Coordinator and the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Resident Representative in India, puts it: “The Indians were not just talking about it but doing it, and visitors from every country who came here saw that.”


It was called the Election Visitors programme as the term‘observers’ had acquired the unsavoury overtone of ‘oversight’ by foreigners whose goal was to pass judgement on the fairness or otherwise of elections. The UN had tested the ground for the programme during the Assembly elections last December, in which visitors from 21 countries participated. And during the General Election this year, 43 delegates from 18 countries — Namibia, Nigeria, Lesotho, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, Nepal, Uganda, Kenya, Bhutan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Somalia, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen and Oman — became part of the programme. The delegates were divided into smaller groups and sent to different states after detailed briefings by the Election Commissioners in New Delhi. Most of them decided to visit polling stations in the hotly contested seats of Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Howrah (West Bengal) and Bengaluru (Karnataka).


In the states, the district magistrates and other senior officials as well as the chief electoral officer or his deputy explained the electoral process and then took the delegates to the polling stations to see how the voting process was organised and overseen by the returning officers. Once the teams were back in New Delhi, they attended a final debriefing with the Election Commissioners.


Most of the visitors were impressed by the huge number of people participating in the election, for which the EC had to set up one million polling stations. Three Election Commissioners and 350 permanent employees of the EC oversee the preparations, with the help of 11 millions others who had been mobilised on a temporary basis to facilitate the process. One of the African delegates was shocked when he heard that the temporary hands were paid ahead of the election. “In my country, if they were paid in advance, they wouldn’t turn up for work,” he told an EC official.


The foreign visitors were especially impressed by the extraordinary care that the EC takes to prevent any shade of bias from entering the polling process. The EC, they were told, does not appoint returning officers from among the cadre of the state administration. Instead, it sends the chosen officials to other states to oversee the polling. A day before the election, the officials assemble at a central point in the state capital from where fan out into the districts, the villages and the mohallahs. There they find lists on notice boards that tell them which polling stations they have been assigned to. Four returning officers are assigned to each polling station.


Then the officials collect the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), test them and head for the numbered buses and vans that will carry them to their destination. Each polling booth, on an average, has two EVMs and one control machine, which automatically records how many votes have been cast and other parameters of the polling. Sometimes, when a constituency has a huge list of candidates, there is an additional EVM. For instance, in Varanasi, where there were 43 candidates, there were three EVMs in each booth.


A large number of security personnel are deployed to ensure that there is no violence either inside or outside the polling station. The returning officers are not allowed to leave the booth until the polling gets over. At 6 am on polling day, a mock poll is held in the presence of the representatives of all the candidates. They vote for every candidate to confirm that the machine does not exclude any of the names. The control machine is unsealed and only after all the representatives are satisfied, it is tied, waxed and sealed again. The candidates’ representatives remain in the booth until closing time.


Polling begins at 7 am. The voters have to show the identity cards and voting slips before entering the polling area. Their names are cross-checked with the voting rolls available with the polling officials.


Extra precautions are taken for those polling stations that the EC or the district administration has marked as ‘vulnerable’. To prevent rigging and deal with communal or caste-based clashes, commando units are assigned to these sensitive booths. The booths are connected to the EC offices in the state as well as in New Delhi, with live web casts to keep a watch on the proceedings.


Grande, who has served with UN peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Palestine and other hotspots across the world, interacted with the visitors and travelled with some of them. She says that the visitors were especially impressed by the care taken to ensure fair play and transparency, and with the security arrangements in the sensitive constituencies. These arrangements, intended to prevent anyone from hijacking the election, were of particular interest to the visitors.


After days of interaction with the visitors, Grande concluded that in their view, “India’s election management is second to none. It is the envy of the world”. The visitors were convinced that the safeguards against tampering with the vote that the EC had put into place were almost foolproof. They were also wonderstruck by how little the entire voting process cost.


They were also impressed by how officials and equipment for conducting the election were moved across the nation fairly quickly and transparently. Arrangements for polling were made even in the remotest of places, even if it meant a day’s trek by officials to a village with just a few hundred voters.


“While ballot papers can be destroyed, electronic voting eliminates that risk. This ensures the integrity of the system. The efficiency of the voting process and its insulation from corruption were the hallmarks of the process,” Grande explained.


The visitors were also impressed by the EC’s outreach programme, in which it sends out representatives to inform the electorate of the importance of voting, to ensure that all those who are eligible to vote are on the voters’ list, and to register new voters. This is in sharp contrast to some older democracies, notably the US, where voters are required to register themselves in order to vote and the entire onus of exercising the right to vote is on them.


Another innovation that impressed many of the visitors, especially those from African countries, was the None of the Above (NOTA) option. “It allows a citizen to reject the entire political elite, if they so choose,” an African visitor explains.


For the first time, transgenders found a place in the voters’ list. Many African visitors were amazed by this, considering the bias against lesbians, gays and transgenders in many of the their countries.


“The simplicity of the entire operation, the intelligent use of technology for the most fundamental democratic right to vote and the precise execution of the process astounded many of the visitors,” says Grande. A visitor from an African country now in the throes of a civil war summed up the reasons why the delegates were so impressed: “The process is so simple, so inexpensive, it can be replicated anywhere and done under any condition. That is the beauty of the process.”