(to be edited/updated shortly)
India is home to 1.3 billion. We are just done with the business of electing our new government at the center. And this is a #latepost on our Election process. Nevertheless, i wanted to write about it. Democracy in India is colossal as our nation is. Nearly a billion of us get to exercise our adult franchise. After all, we are the world’s largest democracy. So how do we go about it at all? Of course, we have elections going on for nearly a month, in 7 phases for different regions! And then it is time to sit back and admire at our handiwork!
MANUAL VOTING-COUNTING TO EVMs (the Electronic Voting Machine), it was one giant leap for India
I can recall the voting and counting centers in Mylapore, where I grew up. Polling booths were as many (like we have in present day scenario) where we had to manually cast our vote in the ballot paper that went into the ballot box. Foul play was a distinct possibility as the ballot paper was printed one. Booth capturing and rigging were not unheard of in troubled areas. Mostly, the name of the adult franchisee figuring in the voters’ list was the only mandatory proof required to cast one’s vote. These voters’ lists received inputs from the contesting political parties themselves which were not above mischief like unauthorized addition/ deletion/ duplication of voters in the electorate. Absence of verification of foolproof photo IDs and matching bio-metrics in the pre-computer era gave rise to numerous loopholes in the electioneering system.
Counting centers were limited in number, still much more than what we have today. For instance for nearly a dozen polling booths, there would be a single counting center in the ’80s. Chennai was good old Madras then. As a populous metro, we could have had not less than a dozen counting centers if my memory serves right. Indian General Elections were grand exercise. Why I recall with such a nostalgia the period upto the 1990s is that, more than the polling itself, it was the counting which used to turn out into a kind of ‘mela’ (village fair). India’s burgeoning population made it colourful and interesting. Every polling booth had thousands of voters listed. Manual counting of votes no wonder was bound to be tedious. The counting would go on for 2 to 3 or even 4 or 5 days at times wherein the electorate could be densely populated. Men and women would picket around the counting centers. Every party that fielded candidate and Independent contestants were allowed 2 or 3 witnesses each who would take turns to keep count as the drama lasted for days. There have been many instances of recounting ordered. The process in short involved excessive labour and depended heavily on manual computation where errors were order of the day,.
Finally, the assimilation process would begin after voting-counting got completed in entire India. Television and Radio coverage was secondary to local news mostly! Leads and Trails frequently changed positions! A number of votes also would get disqualified. Today we have NOTA option in the EVMs (the option that lets you mark that you do not favour any candidate). A pan-India picture of the elected representatives and the government forming would emerge almost after a week. A lot of data needed to be collated, correlated and very many disputes and clarifications sorted out.
Mind boggling! I cannot think back to manual voting/counting days ever again in India! General elections in this 1.3 billion nation is a mammoth exercise. Apart from discrepancies arising out of manual errors, there was time lag from polling time to counting. The restlessness of the counting period however brief, would put the entire nation on tenterhooks. This brief anxious waiting time used to witness violence and bloodshed in sensitive centers.
It is good that things changed for the better in late 1990s thanks to the introduction of the EVMs.
Only once have I exercised my manual voting right in Mylapore. I was heavily pregnant at that time. April or May month, some 10-15 days before my delivery, I walked to my school in Mylapore and cast my vote for the first time in my life. I was 25 then. The year was 1994. My address had not yet been officially changed and my name was listed in Mylapore voting list. I had some so-called ‘voting slips’ that served as my ID proof – those which were issued to me by all parties contesting!!! So I took the bunch with me to the polling station. The counting center then was PS High School for my Lady Sivaswami School polling booth and a couple of more from the area. Festival atmosphere prevailed in the RK Mutt Road where counting was underway in the PSHS, that was cordoned off to vehicular traffic. Cool drinks and ice creams were sold by hawkers to bystanders who kept vigil outside the premises round the clock for nearly 3 days! We would ask everyone passing through our street, who was the current lead! My uncle walked to the school every 2 to 3 hours to get firsthand information for us! I did not know then that it was the last time we were casting votes manually in India and that soon, we would be having a separate bar-coded Voter’s ID and EVMs the Electronic Voting Machines, although there were talks of it for very many years.
I can recall with amusement how some party workers offered to drop me back home in cab looking at my condition when I cast my vote. In fact, local Cable tv clicked a few pictures! Now that is deemed illegal by EC (the Election Commission). In pre-EVM era, it was common practice with political parties to ferry aged and sick people to polling booths. For last 20 years however, you have to singularly walk the last 100-200 meters to the polling booth in India. No mobile phone or automobile or whatever is permissible. Thorough and complete security check with ID proof verification. I am not sure about wheelchairs. May be they need to be sanitized by security personnel.
As for Polling officers, I do see equal strength of staff to man the EVMs in current times as in the non-EVM years, including some technical personnel. The ruckus associated with manual voting is done with. Now polling is a peaceful process in India. It takes less than 10 minutes for security verification as well as electronically casting your vote.
In 2001 or 2002 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, I voted for the first time in an EVM. An EVM is very user friendly and the entire voting process gets extraordinarily simplified and very organised. The EVM is undoubtedly devised with the rural Indian in mind. We in India are trendsetters and pioneers in the Electioneering process. Voting process gets smooth and hassle-free with the EVMs. Grievances addressed then and there. The counting when it started that year, was over in an hour for entire Chennai. Something that would last for 4-5 days like a Test Cricket Match, was finished before it began, well almost! The speed and accuracy of the EVM is what captured my imagination.
THE ELECTION COMMISSION OF INDIA
The Election Commission of India renders a fabulous job. The entire exercise of training officers for Elections, managing security, supplying the EVMs and counting the votes etc., rests with them. Every EVM has to display a different set of candidates with party symbols which is possible only after the last day of nomination. The interval between filing for nominations and actual elections is brief. In this limited window, the election commission gets to work although when it comes to drawing up the latest electorate voter list etc., the commission is at task all 365 days of the year. Updation is a never-ending process for them. Election Officers in India are trained for weeks before the actual general elections. They go to job a lot earlier than the common man gets to know about it. The Election officers and his/her deputies are trained to conduct the election process in a smooth fashion after being educated on the EVMs. They can also deal with any hick-ups in the process along with Security, armed security if situation warranties. The EVMs are free of technical glitches after many trial runs in the lab with the election personnel. In the eventuality of a faulty EVM if any, the same can be switched over with tested and functional one that may be ‘standee.’ The authorization and execution of the election process and such exigencies are reviewed and sanctioned by a hierarchy of government officers. Mostly government staff are recruited as Election officers. Once they are deputed for the job, the officers may not refuse the election work just like a citizen appointed for Jury to dispense justice cannot shirk his/her responsibility in the US or UK.
Before moving to the EVMs, a short recap of the Indian Government set-up. We have the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha or the Parliament at the central level. States have their own Assemblies.
THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA
The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha are the Lower and Upper Houses of Indian parliament.
The Lok Sabha or the Lower House of the Parliament has 545 seats, made up by the election of up to 543 elected members and at a maximum, 2 nominated members of the Anglo-Indian Community by the President of India. A total of 131 seats (24.03%) are reserved for representatives of Scheduled Castes (84) and Scheduled Tribes (47). The Lok Sabha MPs (Member of Parliament) are directly elected representatives from the 29 Indian States and 7 Union Territories of the Indian Union.
Rajya Sabha, the Upper House, is a mixed and curious bag.
Out of the 250 Rajya Sabha MPs, 238 members are nominated by the States and the rest 12 are nominated by the President. Which makes the Rajya Sabha MPs non-elected members of the Indian Parliament. Sachin Tendulkar for instance became a Rajya Sabha MP. He was the president’s candidate (Sports). One-third of Rajya Sabha MPs are also rotated every 2 years. So it is also possible that at times, the ruling government in the center with an absolute two-thirds majority in Lok Sabha may still have to put up with a hostile Rajya Sabha if in case the MPs from the previous government should be concurrently holding the upper house office having been nominated by non-allies in State governments. Recently there was an opinion in media on why therefore State Assembly elections must be held concurrently with the Lok Sabha elections. As we know, this is not the case in most states that have had midterm elections in the past. We have had even Lok Sabha elections midterm. For Bills to be introduced, passing the Rajya Sabha could prove to be acid test if the House weighs heavily in favour of the opposition nominees, even if the presiding government at the center may be holding an overwhelming majority. The Rajya Sabha however could thus serve to be a good strategy or check for majority governments pushing through debatable bills. A very much necessary restraint when the Opposition is weak.
BACK DOOR ENTRY THROUGH RAJYA SABHA
When Congress party staged a surprise come-back in 2004 General Elections, the nation would not have Sonia Gandhi for prime minister given her citizenship issues. Dr. Manmohan Singh was a safe bet, him having handled India’s finance minister portfolio under ex-prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. But Dr. Singh never had to contest any Assembly election let alone Parliamentary elections. His appointment as Governor of Reserve Bank of India was purely apolitical as also as the Head of Planning Commission, both of which offices he assumed as a bureaucrat. Later he became the Finance minister, handpicked by Rao when Congress won the 1991 Lok Sabha elections riding high on sympathy wave after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. The promotion was considered a natural step by political observers who hailed the choice of prime minister Rao. As Indian economy was ‘opened up’ by Rao in landmark budget reforms that were to steer the nation in a different and hitherto uncharted course shortly, Dr. Singh’s economic vision was widely acclaimed to be bold and encouraging by political analysts and economists.
A similar back-door route landed Dr. Singh in the Prime Minister’s office a good ten years later when India’s grand old party returned to power once again in the Lok Sabha elections advanced by BJP in power. Prime Minister Singh was unanimous choice of the party on ruling out Sonia Gandhi, and his election to PM post was vetoed/ratified by his election to Rajya Sabha or the Upper House, from Assam, nominated by Congress party to which he now was affiliated.
So India offers out-of-box options (or perhaps unconstitutional means) for someone to be elected for plum posts through backdoor channels as it happened in the case of Dr. Manmohan Singh who went on to serve the nation as prime minister for 10 long years. Ex-PM Rao was brought back from his retirement when the nation was in crisis with Rajiv gone, and the congress party was in dire need of a senior leader to take on the PM’s job in the ensuing scenario of chaos and confusion. Rao later redeemed/ratified his appointment by winning a Lok Sabha MP seat from his native state Andhra Pradesh within the stipulated six months. But PM Rao was an immensely popular man by his own right, who had a lengthy and colourful political career behind him that guaranteed him his Lower House (Lok Sabha) berth. Either that or the Rajya Sabha berth. Unlike Rao’s, Rajya Sabha neatly fitted Dr. Singh’s bill as the low-profile Manmohan Singh had remained a bureaucrat all his life, with zero exposure in public life. Dr Manmohan Singh remained India’s Closet Prime Minister for the next 10 years holding the highest public chair in the nation, what an irony!
Amendments to the Indian constitution are the need of the hour. It is time to tweak the stone age statutes and make provisions for ratifying the election to PM/CM’s chair by a candidate ONLY on/by his/her securing the MP/MLA seat in Lok Sabha/Assembly constituency elections within a stipulated time-frame of, say 6 months. India can do without a PM heading the nation/state who may fall short of winning the supreme confidence of his/her electorate. Only free and fair public elections can give credence and authenticity to the high chair claimed by a PM aspirant, losing which he/she will be condemned to nothingness. Such an amended clause will pre-exempt greedy mongers and only the meritorious shall survive the acid test of legitimacy.
THE AGE OF THE EVMs (THE ELECTRONIC VOTING MACHINES)
The then Chief Election Commissioner Shri TN Seshan turned a new leaf in the history of electoral democracy in India introducing the EVMs to Indian voters during his tenure between 1998-2001/02. The EVMs came with riders: Declaration of Assets by candidates contesting elections, ban on political parties receiving donations from the public and/or organizations, regulation on rallies and banners/posters, political meetings, media Ads, and use of loud speakers etc. with time restrictions etc. In short indiscriminate campaigning was not tolerated., Canvassing to stop forth strictly 48 hours before the actual election dates, to enable the law enforcement agencies to take charge and ensure that law & order would prevail.
Indian EVMs are stand-alone machines built with once write, ‘read-only’ memory. They are battery powered and not linked to any network wireless or otherwise. The latest version of the EVMs includes the VVPAT system. VVPAT is, Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail. This is a double security measure introduced by EC to rule out tinkering with EVMs or hacking of EVMs (a routine claim by the losing side!)There was even an open challenge announced to hack the EVMs by the EC to prove their effectiveness. The EVMs could not be hacked. It goes on to prove how allegations against the EVMs are baseless. The EVMs are securely devised by neutral government electronic and machine corporations and are 100% tamper-proof. In the recently concluded Lok Sabha Elections 2019, all the 22,000 EVMs used in the election process were VVPAT verified to rule out any electioneering fraud and to ensure free and fair elections to our parliament. If indeed there is rigging or hacking, the EVM count will not match the VVPAT which is audit of voters paper trail. In short, the VVPAT double checking-cross checking with EVM count is irrefutable proof to conduct of free and fair elections in India.
ARMED PROTECTION FOR BOARD PAPERS & EVMS!
Once in my son’s school I have seen how the board exam papers of class 12 were transported: in armoured vehicles, with armed guards! Some 100 m-200 m area is cleared on all sides 2 hours before the board exams start. No other classes can function during the exam hours in the school premises which function as board exam centers. The other school activities get scheduled for the afternoon session, after a 2 hour gap from the exam closing time. Board exam rooms are sanitized and sealed hours before schedule examinations. The future of India lies as much in our Board Exam Answer Sheets as in Ballot Papers/EVMs. I recall that the boys and girls’ uniform shirt and trouser pockets needed to be cut out before they entered the exam halls. Only clear transparent pouches allowed. No belts or shoes, only open sandals. No watches, no mobile phones (naturally). No jewelry including hair clips for girls! CCTV monitoring of the exam halls and the 200 meters surrounding areas and entire school premises! And I am talking about the year 2011 school board exams atmostphere. Looks like ages already
The adherence to strict code of rules and regulations in school board exams conduct in India is clear indicator as to how the general elections must be monitored and handled in the country.