India is not only the largest democracy in the world, its Election Commission is one of the most pro-active, micro-managing each election, never losing focus of details, attending to every aspect up to the last mile. Because its processes are transparent, people have faith in the conduct of elections.
In a short while, five states will go to the polls. These are Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Goa, Punjab and Uttarakhand. The combined electorate is a total of 167.28 million. UP’s electorate alone stands at a staggering 138.5 million, larger in size than many countries of the world.
The micro-managing of this election comprises several important factors. The electoral rolls would have been updated, law and order arrangements put into place in consultation with the district authorities and central forces deployed in all sensitive polling stations. A number of transparency measures, such as video recording in all sensitive polling stations (which I had activated during the general elections of 2009) would have been ordered so as to establish a level playing field.
As soon as the announcement of elections is made by the ECI, the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) kicks in. Some readers may remember the effectiveness that former CEC TN Seshan had brought into its implementation, which has continued since.
The MCC is a mechanism unique to India. Evolved by political parties themselves in the early sixties in Kerala, it is a set of dos and dont’s that the EC administers, and to which most of the political parties and their candidates adhere. Largely because of its strict implementation, the election scene in India is devoid of the invectives and crass rudeness that we recently witnessed in the US presidential election.
The EC derived enormous advantage by being among the first electoral management bodies to embrace technology. The application of the electronic voting machines (EVM) was a bold idea that would transform the manner in which polls were conducted. The EVM’s manifest advantage was that the results could be finalised accurately in a matter of hours.
The scourge of “booth capturing” and the looting of ballot boxes, rampant in the ’80s and ’90s came down sharply, especially when polling stations were better secured by central forces. One reason for the EVMs’ high degree of acceptability amongst all stakeholders is that, unlike some other countries where volunteers and students sometimes man their EVMs, in India they are placed under government officials who are necessarily under the disciplinary powers of the State.
Improvements in EVMs are constantly sought to be made. Most recently, on directions from the Supreme Court, the Commission is trying to develop a “paper trail”.
In a country as vast and diverse as India, the EC embarked on another nation-wide initiative which was to undertake a mapping of all our communication assets with reference to every polling station in the country.
The logistics of reaching man and machine to every voting booth required months of detailing by a team of indefatigable officials at headquarters working closely with the Chief Electoral Officers (CEO) in each state and Union Territory. This has resulted in a formidable communication network that was anointed with the acronym COMET.
Meanwhile, will the recent demonetisation prove to be a game changer? Will it eliminate or at least substantially reduce the problem of money power that has been the primary negative factor in our electoral landscape? We will learn this soon enough. If it confines our electoral spending to statutory limits of up to Rs 28 lakh and eliminates the scourge of black money, it will be considered a major electoral reform.
(Navin B Chawla is a former chief election commissioner of India)