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India’s big elections

900 million voters,1 million polling stations, 40 days... The world’s biggest democracy will select a new government this month. What can Pakistan learn from this exercise?

India’s big elections

Indian elections are undoubtedly the most wowed at act in the global democratic theater. The sheer scale of the exercise is mindboggling. In the current elections, 900 million voters are exercising their right at one million polling stations on seven different dates spread over six weeks and over as diverse geography as it could be. To put these numbers in context, consider the fact that every eighth adult in the world is an Indian voter or imagine if Pakistan holds nine general elections in one month’s time — that would be the administrative equivalent of one Indian election.

But Indian elections are not just about how successfully this administrative exercise of gigantic proportions is conducted, probably an even bigger achievement is that the exercise has rarely led to political instability. It certainly is not without problems but there can be little doubt that it does solve more than it creates.

This is in contrast to Pakistan where every general election, over past 40 years, has given birth to a political crisis that has lasted till the next elections. The governance blue print of the two countries is almost the same. Most of the public institutions that were partitioned in 1947 still follow the same work model.

So, what does India do differently from us that its elections fair so much better?

Not surprisingly, the mandate and the powers of the election commissions of the two countries are exactly the same. The only visible difference is that Pakistan has reserved the top job in its commission for retired judges while India assigns it to administrators from its civil service. It may not look telling from the surface but it is instrumental in creating two different types of institutional cultures with direct bearings on their performance on ground.

Like Pakistan, India too inducts polling staff from its vast pool of government employees, mostly teachers, and trains them before assigning them a polling station duty. The difference here, however, is that they have to handle an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) which has simplified many of their chores, and has taken away the most strenuous of their duties, that is, ballot counting.

The polling staff in Pakistan has to collect poll material, conduct balloting all day, count and prepare results, and then convey these to candidates and the commission, before carefully winding up and handing over the paraphernalia to relevant authorities. By comparison, Indian polling station is ballot-paperless which saves the commission the massive exercise of printing, and then transporting these to and from polling stations, and, of course, also from counting them manually. After proving their identity, the voters in India press the button on EVMs that electronically saves their choice.

After the polling time, EVMs are sealed and secured for the counting day when they are gathered at counting centres. They are connected to another machine that extracts the saved votes and electronically counts them — and the result is prepared in no time.

The machine has obliterated the need for manual counting at polling stations and then for consolidating results at constituency and national levels. These are the most sensitive and stressful of all the election chores. Most of the disputes and controversies take birth at this stage. Its automation has not only made life easier for polling staff, it has also played a vital role in making the electoral process least controversial.

The system was trialed for well over a decade. It has been employed in all elections since 2004. The machine, however, faced considerable criticism in the 2014 elections when a number of parties doubted that the machines have been electronically manipulated by the winning party. The machine is very dear to the Indian commission and they are doing everything to ally apprehensions of the parties.

One such measure the Indian commission has taken in 2019 is introduction of Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT). A new machine is now attached to EVM that prints a chit with every press of the button showing the voter the party that they have voted for and then storing it in a secured compartment of the same machine. If the voter sees a discrepancy in their choice and the printed chit, they can raise an objection and the polling staff then has to recheck the machine. The commission will also manually count votes polled by each candidate (generated by VVPAT-machine) in five randomly selected polling stations in every constituency as a counter check to EVM’s electronically counted tally. The commission thinks that these measures will help address the criticism on the performance of its machines.

But what remains an insurmountable challenge for the commission is the increasing role of money in buying or influencing voters in Indian elections. The commission has strict rules governing transportation of cash during election time and it also seemingly has the will to implement them. It seized cash worth INR 3 billion in 2014 elections besides confiscating 16 million litres of liquor — the other most popular currency used for election bribery. This time, just two weeks before the conclusion of polling, cash seizures crossed INR 8 billion.

This is despite the new and innovative electoral bond scheme that the Modi government had introduced early last year with the purported objective of bringing transparency to election financing. Under the scheme, the donors bought the bonds in denominations of 2,000 to one crore from the State Bank to donate to political party of their choice, who then deposited them in their bank accounts. The scheme ensured that the entire transaction remained within the formal banking channels. The biggest recipient of the funds under this scheme has been the ruling BJP.

The validity of the scheme was challenged in the Supreme Court of India by an NGO, as it allowed the donor to remain anonymous despite the transaction routing through formal channels. The scheme did not find favour with the commission as well. It thought the scheme may allow shell companies and foreign entities to fund and influence Indian politics. But the Supreme Court refused to stay the scheme and to the dismay of its critics has put the decision pending till after the current elections.

That’s, however, not the only high-level decision that has disappointed many across and outside India this election season. A number of complaints about leaders committing brazen violations of code of conduct for election campaign have not elicited responses from the commission that could correct the course. From use of abusive language, communal slurs and religious innuendoes to misplaced recourse to patriotism, a lot has remained unchecked in current elections.

To sum it up, Lok Sabha elections 2019 have put the main cog in the giant electoral machine, the EVM, under its biggest stress test so far. The money trail of elections is now messier than it has ever been and the electoral politics has gone rough, divisive and cut-throat like never before. Collectively, these have turned the current elections into a test of resilience for the Indian democracy. And that would be the most important aspect to watch out for on May 23 and the days and weeks to follow.

Tahir Mehdi

Tahir Mehdi
The author works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

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