Right from 1951-52, when the first general election of our newly proclaimed republic was conducted, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has increasingly been recognised as a beacon for the conduct of free, fair and transparent polls. Political parties and contestants have come to view the ECI as an unbiased umpire.
While they are ever watchful of breaches, perceived or otherwise, of the model code of conduct by other contestants, they are equally alive to every decision taken by the ECI, which, in turn, ensures that a level-playing field is maintained.
This means the rapid verification of all complaints is followed by a deliberation by the full commission. Integrity and attention to detail become the ‘mantra’ that every commission must follow, leading to reasoned decisions and orders. The acceptance of these decisions by the contestants themselves and the country at large indicates the respect that the commission has gained as a vital institution.
It was with this sense of heightened preparation that the ECI went into the planning and execution of the general election that led to the birth of the 15th Lok Sabha on June 1, 2009. The election took place in five phases, was spread over 27 days, and involved almost 716 million voters on the electoral rolls (58.4% voted).
There were almost 835,000 polling stations and 1.3 million electronic voting machines were deployed. Close to 11 million officials and staff were put on duty. With 8,070 candidates in the fray, the general election became indisputably the largest management exercise in the world.
It involved not merely following the rule book, but also demanded the highest level of integrity from 543 returning officers and senior police officials. All this and much more helped contribute to the peaceful and satisfying conclusion of so mammoth an exercise.
Yet the 15th Lok Sabha proved to be a disappointment. It was disappointing in the record of wasted hours, disappointing too in terms of pending legislation that was neither debated nor passed.
It was sad that this Lok Sabha met for only 71 days in a year, as against an average of 127 days. There were so many disruptions that the dominant images that reside in our consciousness are those of the despair and anguish reflected on the face of the Speaker, as the rules of the House were broken with impunity.
That we did not witness on our TV screens the pepper spray incident involving one of the Lok Sabha’s wealthiest members, who used this technique to silence ‘opponents’ in the House, was only because transmission was stopped to spare us that final shame.
In the past five years it was only very occasionally that we saw informed debate. Seldom did MPs walk us through the problems that existed in their constituencies or the solutions that they might have had for them.
One would have hoped that a country as large as ours, bristling with problems and issues, would invite reasoned solutions from the Treasury benches and Opposition alike. However, we failed to witness many of the erudite and often sparkling debates of yesteryear, when our representatives, particularly in the Rajya Sabha, deserved to be called ‘elders’.
Instead, for those of us who cared to watch the live proceedings on television, we were witness to interminable hours of dissensions, leading to such lamentable lapses of reasoned behaviour. In that context I wonder whether the decision taken by an earlier Speaker to transmit House proceedings live was an altogether wise one. Ironically, the wasted opportunities of the 15th Lok Sabha were born out of an election process that was viewed as free, fair and transparent, both nationally and internationally.
Parliament comprised the largest numbers of self-declared ‘crorepatis’. Of the 543 Lok Sabha members, as many as 315 (or 58%) were crorepatis. Of the 245 Rajya Sabha members, at least 100 (or 40.81%) were crorepatis. In addition to this, almost 30% of the members of both Houses declared criminal antecedents in their own affidavits.
If the data analysed by some experts are to be believed, the winnability of a candidate improved by a considerable margin when wealth was combined with criminal antecedents. Is it any surprise then that most political parties had ‘winnability’ as their ‘mantra’?
The ECI’s latest data point to a very large number of new voters in the age group 18-22. This translates into almost 180,000 young voters per constituency. Most of them will vote for the first time in the upcoming general election. I have interacted with student audiences all over the country in the past eight years.
Their earlier apathy (“why should we vote?”, “what difference will it make?”, “politicians are all the same, etc”) has now been replaced by a restless energy. No longer apathetic, they are now focused on obtaining jobs and a better future for themselves. Much less are they looking at politics through the prism of caste or religion. In fact, I find very little of that in my recent interactions with them.
It is in this major paradigm shift that I see hope of greater accountability being demanded by young people of their political representatives. We saw the results when young voters turned out to vote for the Aam Aadmi Party in the recently concluded Delhi assembly elections. Hopefully the 16th Lok Sabha will fulfil the aspirations of this new generation of increasingly more demanding first-time voters.
Navin B Chawla is former Chief Election Commissioner
The views expressed by the author are personal