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Conducting Elections in the  World’s Largest Democracy

S. Y. Quraishi*

A thriving and vibrant electoral democracy has been India’s distinct and durable identity, long before it asserted itself as an economic, nuclear or IT major.   Founded by a great Constitution,  it has been nurtured by parliament, judiciary, political parties, media and above all by the people of India, with some distinct contribution from the Election Commission of India.

Despite doubts and fears from many quarters, founders of modern India adopted universal adult suffrage thus reposing faith in the wisdom of the common Indian to elect his/her representative to the seat of power. Choice of electoral democracy was variously termed: a giant leap forward, a bold enterprise, an unparalleled adventure. When the independence came directly to the hands of ordinary people in the form of a vote,  it was a period when 84% of Indians were illiterate, equal number in poverty living in an unequal society fractured by a caste-based hierarchical system. India has proved Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s famous statement that a country does not become fit for democracy, it becomes fit through democracy.  The Constitution created a fiercely independent Election Commission of India to carry the democracy forward.

Over the past sixty three  years, the Election Commission has delivered fifteen elections to the Lok Sabha (the Lower House) and over 350 elections to State Legislative Assemblies,  facilitating peaceful, orderly and democratic transfer of power.  In India, the rise of leaders belonging to the marginalized sections of the society, farmers, women, and minorities to head national and state governments and to important positions has very much to do with the practice of electoral democracy. Increasing  heterogeneity of parties and government formation through coalition  reflect a bouquet of diverse aspirations.   

The statistics of today’s Indian elections may be mind boggling, even if you look at them purely as numbers. There  are around 780 million electors on the Electoral Roll of India, as on 1st of January, 2014, which is more than the population of both North and South American continents taken together or all the countries of Europe or of Africa combined The last elections to the Indian Parliament held in 2009 can be described as the biggest humanly managed event in the world. It involved 714 million voters, 835 thousand polling stations, 1.18 million Electronic Voting Machines and 11 million personnel.

It is not just the  magnitude of Indian democracy in terms of geographical area or size of the electorate, but the anxiety to reach every single citizen. We even have a separate polling station for a lone voter in the Gir Forest in western  India.  

India is perhaps the most diverse country of the world, be it geographical – deserts, mountains, plains, forests, islands, coastal areas – or in being multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic. There’s a need to meet the demands of this diversity. Equally difficult are the other challenges of fighting terrorism, security threats, adjusting to globalization and rising expectations of an information savvy growing middle class. There’s a responsibility on the EC to deliver free, fair, transparent and peaceful elections, ensuring inclusiveness and participation.

The management of elections in India is  continually evolving. From separate ballot boxes for each candidate to  the marking system,  to EVMs (electronic voting machines) has been a long journey. EVMs are  simple, friendly, cost-effective and give faster and error free voting and counting and have been a game changer.

A major challenge  in our elections is how to ensure level playing field. The party in power has all the resources of the state at its command. Hence there is a need to create a code of conduct to be followed by all stakeholders, particularly the party in power. 

Model Code of Conduct is a unique compact evolved with the consensus of political parties in India and is a singular significant contribution by them to the cause of democracy. The Election Commission enforces it right from the day it announces any election schedule. MCC has no statutory backing and many of its provisions are not legally enforceable. Yet the compliance is immense.  Public opinion is the moral sanction for its enforcement. Though ECI has quite effectively neutralized the challenges of muscle power and incumbency power, it is concerned that corruption and money power can pollute the electoral process and undermine its real potential.

Elections have to be not only free and fair but also socially just and more participative. During our sixty years democratic history, the voter turnout has remained around 55-60%. It is a good figure compared to the declining voter interest in several societies, but it is definitely far less than what we aspire to achieve. 

To make democracy truly inclusive, we have come up with a Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) wing that rolls out comprehensive community outreach and multi-media campaigns to bring all citizens, esp the youth,  into electoral participation.

 In every election now, we carry out a scientific survey of Knowledge, Attitude, Behaviour and Practices (KABP) of voters before launching voter awareness programmes in partnership with civil society and the media. This initiative has returned impressive dividends in terms of higher registration and turnout in each of the recent state elections including records in some states.

In a historic measure, Commission declared 25th January, its foundation day as the National Voters Day (NVD) from 2011 with the avowed purpose to increase enrolment of voters, especially of the newly eligible ones. More than 5.2 million newly eligible and registered youth were given their voter cards at more than  half a million polling stations on the first National Voters Day, besides adding up about 17 million new voters to the roll. This has been billed as the largest exercise of empowerment of the youth on a single day, anywhere in the world. This is now an annual feature in India. Many other countries have shown interest to adopt the model.

   It does not require any explanation that aspiring democracies around the world look forward to sharing the knowledge, skills and expertise at ECI’s disposal. Responding to increasing global demands, especially from Afro-Asian nations, the Commission has started off the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management (IIDEM) that serves as a training and resource centre in the critical sector of elections and democratic processes for both national and international participants. In just two years of its existence, the institute has imparted training to election managers of over forty Afro Asian and Commonwealth countries, besides thousands of domestic master trainers.  The  Institute is now assisting  representative democracy worldwide.

With the type of constitutional mandate that the Commission has, it cannot afford to sit on its laurels. There are several reform proposals from the Commission, that aim at cleaning up the electoral process, so that the foundation can be laid for good governance and a corruption free polity. Some of these proposals deal with criminalisation of politics and regulation of campaign finance, internal democracy of political parties, etc.

We have come to a stage in India when holding a free and fair election is no more news. In fact not holding one would be an exception. This is India’s promise to its own people and to the world.  There shall be no let off in the fight against money power in elections. The other goal is to have every eligible Indian on our electoral rolls and every Indian voter to vote in the elections. The Commission 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.' Our progress on this road is sure and steady.

* S.  Y. Quraishi is former Chief Election Commissioner of India

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