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Tested in Gujarat’s lab

Elections under the watch of a huge posse of armed police personnel is not exactly a compliment to our democratic credentials, writes N Gopalaswami.

india Updated: Dec 28, 2007 00:51 IST

If there was one thing common to the elections in Bihar (2005), West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and other states (2006), Uttar Pradesh and now Gujarat this year, it was the use of central police personnel. Not unexpectedly, and understandably, this came in for criticism. It was not that the Election Commission (EC) was very pleased about it either. I said as much after the UP polls. Elections under the watch of a huge posse of armed police personnel is not exactly a compliment to our democratic credentials.

But why did the EC embark on such a course of action? We have to go back to the February 2005 Bihar elections for the answer. The EC received reports that the exercise of earmarking hyper-sensitive and sensitive polling stations was being manipulated, with last-minute changes being made under political pressure. Further, we had reports that the central forces sent to the districts were being sidelined — they were either confined to barracks or, in some blatant cases, parked on the railway platforms where they had disembarked.

Further, for the first time, a rigorous analysis was done of previous voting patterns. A list was prepared of all polling stations in each constituency where polling was 15 per cent higher than the average for the constituency and where 80 per cent of the votes cast were in favour of one of the candidates. The district election officer (Collector/District Magistrate) was then told that these polling stations would be earmarked as sensitive and no changes could be effected here without the EC’s concurrence. Additions to the list could be made with the concurrence of the observers, based on local conditions like previous poll violence, booth-capturing, sensitivity on account of contesting candidates, etc.

Obviously, a large force of central police personnel was required to cover almost 75-80 per cent of polling stations, as most Opposition parties in each state were opposed to state police force being deployed. The EC had perforce to resort to a multi-phase schedule. Coverage was upgraded to 100 per cent in UP and with multi-phase polling, the categorisation work was altogether abandoned, as every polling station had the same level of security personnel.

However, in Gujarat, a slightly different strategy was followed. An exercise called the 4S (S for sensitivity) test was undertaken. Every polling station was categorised, with the level of sensitivity increasing from 1S to 4S. One S mark was awarded for each of the following conditions, if fulfilled.

More than 10 per cent electors without electoral identity card.

More than 10 per cent ADS, i.e. Absent, Duplicate and Shifted electors.

More than 75 per cent of the votes polled in a polling station in the 2002 election went in favour of one candidate.

Presence of vulnerable pockets of electors or police thana record of poll-related clashes, caste conflicts or candidate-related sensitivities.

Polling stations earning even one S mark were to be provided with central police personnel cover. Where there was no past case of booth-capturing, the focus was on preventing any possible attempt at bogus voting. After all, there was a state average of 7.79 per cent electors in the absent and shifted list, with many constituencies showing more than 10 per cent in this category — the Choryasi A.C. in Surat district ranked first, with four lakh such voters i.e. 25 per cent. It is here that the innovation of placing an official designated as ‘micro-observer’ was adopted.

The EC had introduced the system of micro-observers in selected polling stations in UP. This idea was taken further in Gujarat. In UP, the micro-observers utilised were just around 300. But in Gujarat, in both phases put together, a total of 9,418 micro-observers were deployed. They had the specific task of reporting whether the staff at the polling station followed all the instructions, whether they adhered to all procedures, whether the identification of voters in the ADS list was thorough and whether polling agents were present and they acted according to law.

Micro-observers were stationed at 4S polling stations and at polling centres where multiple polling stations were situated. Their training was entrusted to the general observers and the information about polling stations where micro-observers were to be stationed was kept confidential by the general observers in charge of the constituency till the morning of the poll.

Central police force jawans did 100 per cent coverage of every polling station in the 41 assembly constituencies identified as sensitive. Elsewhere, a judicious mix of central police personnel and micro-observers was organised in such a way that every polling station came under watch. Almost all the polling stations were covered with a minimum of two out of three control mechanisms — namely, CPO jawan and a micro-observer or a surveillance camera. A total of 11,566 cameras were used. We also had 42 students from IIM as micro-observers, who were also asked to do a system study and suggest improvements to the pre-poll day and poll-day arrangements.

The use of micro-observers in a large number proved useful. This successful experiment has the potential of being replicated in a larger measure all over the country. Over time, it should be possible, and it is desirable, to involve citizen-volunteers as micro-observers. This can greatly reduce the dependence on large contingents of central and state armed police forces in the conduct of elections.

Elsewhere in many democracies, citizen-volunteers run elections as polling officials with nil or minimal presence of police. Can’t we dream of such a day in our elections?