The scale of the Indian elections
Voters' index fingers are marked with indelible ink after they cast their ballots. (Credit: lakshmiprasad/Bigstock.com) (via: bit.ly)

Considering India’s unfathomable diversity and continental proportions, its thriving and vibrant electoral democracy has been a uniquely enduring identity. This confidence in the ‘idea of India’ originates from unmistakable economic and technological progress. The country’s youth have made their presence felt across the world through a service sector that is now among India’s more durable assets.[1]

The 17th Lok Sabha elections in 2019, now underway in seven phases from 11 April to 19 May, will yet again be the biggest election in world history, with over 900 million registered voters, out of which 15 million are aged 18-19. The total electorate is more akin to the size of a continent than a single country! In comparison, Europe’s entire population continent is only 60% of the size of India’s! India’s population is also larger than the populations of North and South America combined.

This year there will be nearly one million polling stations, up 10.1% from the 16th Lok Sabha elections in 2014. In order to cast votes through EVMs, 2.33 million ballot units, 1.63 million control units, and 1.74 million VVPATs (voter verifiable paper audit trails) will be spread throughout the country. Approximately 11 million polling staff, including security forces, will be involved. Their neutrality and precision is non-negotiable, and they will be randomly tested for neutrality.

Over 120 trains with more than 3,000 coaches, and 200,000 buses and cars, besides a large variety of transport – from boats, elephants, and camels, to planes and helicopters – will transport staff and materials with clockwork precision. Thousands of polling parties will walk 2-3 days to reach otherwise inaccessible polling stations.

The Commission’s resolve is to reach every voter and make sure that its vision of ‘No voter left behind’ is realised.  The Election Commission has ruled that no voter should have to travel more a mile from their home to cast a ballot, whether they live on a peak in the world’s highest mountains or a remote island in the Bay of Bengal.

The polling booth in Gir Forest National Park in Gujarat is set up for the sole human inhabitant every five years, who is a Hindu priest. The local polling officials hike for a whole day to reach Malogam village in Arunachal Pradesh, where just one woman is registered to vote. In the Ladakh region, a polling station at an altitude of 4,327 meters (14,196 feet) has been set up for 12 voters. Another station called Anlay Pho is also in Ladakh, and is a whopping 4,500 meters (almost 15,000 feet) above sea level. Polling teams carry oxygen tanks to reach it. These sleepless and dangerous adventures of the committed polling staff showcase the grand commitment of the Election Commission of India.

India was famous for its democracy long before it asserted itself as a major economic, nuclear, or IT power. Founded with a comprehensive and deftly drafted constitution, India has been nurtured by affirmative legislation, a judiciary which acts as a guardian angel of democracy, various political parties, a lively ‘fourth estate’ of press and news media, and most importantly, by the country’s many great peoples. In constitutional terms, the Election Commission of India emerged as the most powerful electoral body in the world and has made a singularly distinct contribution.

Despite doubts and fears from many quarters, the founders of independent India adopted universal suffrage, thus placing faith in the wisdom of the common people to elect their representatives to power. This is no small feat considering that women’s suffrage was hard won in many developed Western countries. Take, for example, the case of the US, which took 144 years, and the UK, which took 100 years, to grant political equality to women. By the time women received unconditional suffrage, on the same terms as men, in the UK in 1928, Dr Muthulaxmi Reddy, a 41-year-old medical doctor, had already become the first female member of the Madras Legislative Council, in the UK’s biggest and most prized colony!

India’s giant leap was a bold and unparalleled adventure. The new democracy represented nothing short of a constitutional revolution, emerging as it did in a period when 84% of Indians were illiterate and an equal number living in poverty in an unequal society fractured by a caste-based hereditary hierarchy. India began by removing the most fundamental of inequalities – that of political rights.

The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen famously said that a country does not become fit for democracy, it becomes fit through democracy. India has certainly been a shining example in this regard. The constitution ensured the Election Commission of India was fiercely independent; it therefore acted as a guardian of electoral democracy and ensured peaceful and legitimate transfers of power when many other postcolonial regimes fell prey to conflicts or dictatorships. India maintained its secular, liberal, and democratic identity despite wars, economic ups and downs, and other instabilities.

Despite some unfortunate setbacks, there have been many interesting developments in the politics of the country over the last seventy years. The rise of leaders belonging to marginalised sections of society, farmers, women, and other minorities to head national and state governments and attaining important positions has much to do with the practice of credible elections. Parties have become more heterogeneous and government formation has happened through coalitions of diverse interests.

Because of the dynamic nature of both globalisation and the Indian polity, the management of elections in India is continuously evolving. From separate ballot boxes for each candidate, to the marking system, to EVMs (electronic voting machines), it has been a long and fruitful journey. From Sukumar Sen to T. N. Seshan, various efforts have certainly served to increase people’s trust in the electoral system and in the Election Commission.

The Election Commission has delivered sixteen elections to the Lok Sabha (‘the House of the People’ – India’s lower house of parliament) and over 360 elections to state legislative assemblies in the past seven decades. Every national election has left behind a lesson in new about the changing aspirations of the Indian people and has added a new facet to the country’s constantly evolving democracy.

A major challenge is how to ensure a level playing field. The risk is that the party in power has all the resources of the state at its command, and can emerge as the main offender when it comes to electoral misconduct. Since a code of conduct to be followed by all stakeholders, particularly the party in power, was created, this has ensured minimum standards of behaviour during campaigning and the conduct of elections.

The Model Code of Conduct is a unique document that evolved with the consensus of many political parties across India and is a significant contribution to electoral democracy. The Election Commission enforces it from the day the election schedule is announced. Although it has no statutory backing and many of its provisions are not legally enforceable, levels of compliance are immense, barring a few transgressions. Public opinion is the moral sanction for its enforcement, and this is arguably more important than legal sanctity.

Despite the ground-breaking success of the Code over the years, the Commission is now concerned that corruption and financial power have exacerbated the problem of a polluted electoral process and undermined the real potential of the Code. In an era of disruptive technologies and digital dissemination of (mis-)information, the enforcement of the Code is becoming more and more difficult and the challenges more intense.

Elections have to be not only free and fair but also socially just and increasingly participative. During India’s democratic history, voter turnout has remained around 55-60%. To make democracy truly inclusive, it is not only the process but participation that have also been of concern to the Commission. This is the reason for the Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) wing, which has rolled out comprehensive community outreach and multimedia campaigns to enable everyone, especially young people and women, to express their citizenship as voters.

Due to the tireless efforts of the Commission regarding voter education and enrolment, women voters outnumbered men in the 2010 Bihar assembly elections and in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. There was a ten-percentage-point jump in women’s turnout – from 55.82% in 2009 to 65.63% in 2014! Women outnumbered men in 16 states despite the adverse gender ratio. The gender voting gap shrank to a mere 1.46%! (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Voter turnout in India’s general elections (Lok Sabha)

The scale of the Indian elections 2

Graph source: Quraishi (2019).

In a historic measure, the Commission declared 25 January, the anniversary of its founding, as National Voters Day (NVD). This began in 2011 with the grand purpose of increasing voter enrolment, especially of newly eligible.[2] More than 5.2 million newly eligible and registered young people were given their voter cards at more than half a million polling stations on the first National Voters Day in 2011. This is now an annual feature in India. Many other countries have shown interest in adopting the model, especially India’s neighbours Bhutan and Nepal.

Needless to say, democracies and aspiring democracies around the world now look to learn from the experience, skills, and expertise which are at the Commission’s disposal. In response to increasing demands from the global community, particularly from African and Asian countries, the Commission has started off the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management (IIIDEM), which serves as a resource centre on election management for both domestic and international participants. The institute has imparted training to election managers from over forty Commonwealth, African and Asian states. The Institute is now assisting guardians of democracy worldwide.

In India, scheduling elections of this magnitude and in an area so diverse is no small or simple task. Besides the logistics, several factors have to be taken into consideration, keeping the convenience of the voters in mind.

The school examinations make the month of March out of reckoning. Millions of schools and their teachers are involved are involved in the polling process. Weather conditions, the agricultural cycle, social and religious festivals, and concerns of law and order are taken into consideration. The availability of security forces, demanded by every political party, determines the number of phases, since they have to be rotated because of limited numbers.

With the 2019 elections, the Election Commission has another feather in its cap. The most powerful electoral body in the world has a simple vision: ‘Elections that are completely free of crime and abuse of money, based on a perfect electoral roll and with full participation of voters.’  As many as forty reform proposals have been pending for over two decades to realise this grand vision. But due to political lethargy, the Commission’s job is becoming more and more difficult in this era of fake news, money, mass media, and disruptive technologies. Urgent action is needed in areas such as campaign finance reform, the depoliticisation of appointments at the Commission, inner-party democracy, and a curbing of the overarching influence of financial power in elections.

Although elections do not guarantee socio-economic development, they form the starting point for equality. Election manifestos that promise huge unemployment handouts, implying a significant rise in education and healthcare budgets, are also indicators of India’s future trends. The Election Commission therefore deserves genuine credit for its systems and management of 1.3 billion people’s electoral participation. However, despite so many achievements, India still has some way to go if it is to emerge as a robust democracy ready for the challenges of the 21st century. The constitution-makers and the judiciary have paved the way. But comprehensive electoral reforms are needed in order to make the world’s largest democracy also the world’s greatest democracy. The country is looking eagerly towards its 17th Lok Sabha to step up to the task.

[1] A faster obsolescence rate in the capital goods sector is one measure of how far services have developed.

[2] India has a voting age of 18.

 

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Former Chief Election Commissioner of India and Author, IN

S. Y. Quraishi is the former Chief Election Commissioner of India (2010-12) and the author of An undocumented wonder: The making of the great Indian election. He has also edited a collection of essays on the electoral history of India titled “The great march of democracy: Seven decades of India’s elections”.
Suresh A. Keswani

Special Adviser, DOC Research Institute,

Suresh A. Keswani, MA, LLB, is an activist involved with the poverty alleviation programmes of the World Bank and the IMF. He is a former Indian politician who has represented Maharashtra in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India's parliament. As a member of parliament, he served on the Parliament Standing Committee on Defence and also held membership of the Standing Committee of Finance, where he shaped legislation regarding the banking and insurance sectors. Alongside members of parliament from seven different countries, he co-founded the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank, which works with the World Bank on poverty alleviation and economic development projects. He acts as an associate member of the organisation's governing board and was invited to work on the UN's Millennium Development Goals