The term “stolen election” was coined in America because of malpractices and serious irregularities in the Al Gore versus George W. Bush 2000 presidential elections. In sharp contrast, a decade later, Hillary Clinton, as US secretary of state, lauded the “gold standard” of India’s Election Commission (EC) responsible for “superintendence, direction and control” of elections as laid down in the constitution.
The poll watchdog, currently conducting the world’s biggest-ever election, involving 811 million voters and 11 million election officials deployed at nearly a million polling stations across India, has come a long way since its birth in 1950. But, Hillary’s fulsome praise notwithstanding, it still has a long way to go.
Mid-way through the nine-phase voting, the biggest concern was whether the EC had meekly surrendered to Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — tipped to evict the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance from power on May 16, the day votes will be counted. Modi’s ‘Man Friday’, Amit Shah — known as the PM aspirant’s hatchet man in some quarters — publicly incited Hindus to attack Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is eyeing 50-60 seats out of 80. The EC charged Shah with violating the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), but he was let off lightly — EC stonewalled demands to ban Shah from campaigning although he turned out to be a serial offender.
Neither has the watchdog slammed Modi for sectarian and inflammatory anti-Muslim remarks tailored to polarise voters along religious lines. Many see the massacre of 34 Muslims in Assam by BJP-backed Bodo terrorists as a direct fallout of Modi’s hate mongering. EC naturally denies that it has a soft spot for BJP, but apprehensions persist, sullying its image. Without a doubt, question marks over EC’s neutrality have undermined its moral authority. Not too long ago, it emerged as one of the most trusted institutions in India in a survey conducted by New Delhi’s Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The nationwide survey had placed the EC at par with the Supreme Court, known for its impartiality and independence. But those days are gone — EC has slipped off its pedestal. How quickly it regains its position will depend on how seriously it views its fall from grace.
Former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), S. Y. Quraishi’s book, An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election, has just been released in which he boasts that India has more voters than “50 countries of Europe, 54 countries of Africa and 43 countries of North and South America”. Significantly, he writes that the EC’s job is to ensure a level playing field for all contestants. But I strongly feel that at present, it is tilted in favour of the Hindu Right to the growing exasperation of liberals in the officially secular but predominantly Hindu nation.
There are other issues too. Why is the 2014 election process so long? Governance suffers during elections as there is an air of uncertainty. Elections, therefore, should be completed as quickly as possible in the public interest. At present, only people on the government’s payroll are deployed on election duty. Why doesn’t the EC also rope in ordinary citizens to perform electoral duties? And lastly, is a mild-mannered CEC like incumbent V. S. Sampath, who succeeded Quraishi in mid 2012, better than the larger-than-life former CEC, T. N. Seshan, who many think was the best thing to happen to Indian elections since the first poll in 1951-52.
The EC says that India is far too big and has far too many voters besides multiple security concerns. Hence the 63-day long poll process from March 5 when the election schedule was announced, to May 16, when the votes will be counted. True, India’s first election in 1951-52 took four months. But elections between 1957 and 1998 were completed in four to 18 days. The 2004 elections were held between April 20 and May 10. In 2009, they were held from April 16 to May 13. But this time, voting is taking place in nine phases between April 7 and May 12.
Veteran journalist Jawid Laiq, who has studied election processes in many democracies, says that “with phenomenal technological advances in modern communications and improvements in transport networks, our [Indian] election machinery should complete the entire process within a fortnight or less”. Laiq points out that Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy after India and the US, completed its 2014 national and regional elections in a single day — April 9. Similarly, elections to national and provincial legislatures in Brazil — three times India’s size — will be held in a single day, October 5, 2014.
There is also a strong case for assigning poll duties to ordinary citizens instead of harnessing only government officials, ranging from schoolteachers to postmasters besides powerful public servants like district magistrates, during elections. Besides giving private individuals a sense of participation in a key function of the state like conducting elections, it will cement government’s ties with civil society and strengthening democracy in the process.
It is often argued that every CEC should be a clone of Seshan who was CEC from 1990 to 1996. A retired bureaucrat writes that Seshan’s “sight or name sent shivers down the spines of the most difficult and desperate of politicians”. I would much prefer a law-abiding and God-fearing civil servant rather than a megalomaniac like Seshan, who mistook himself to be a field marshall. His obsession with himself drove him into the arms of the fascist Shiv Sena when he left the EC. Shiv Sena fielded Seshan as a presidential candidate in 1997, but he lost miserably to K. R. Narayanan.
S.N.M. Abdi is a noted Indian journalist and commentator.