In the general election just held in the UK, about 66 per cent of 46-million registered electors voted — a bit more than in the previous election (65.1 per cent). I had the opportunity to observe the election as an independent observer with a group from 26 countries, mostly election commissioners.
There are many similarities between British and Indian elections, but significant differences, too. We largely follow the Westminster model, and our Lok Sabha is the counterpart of the House of Commons, to which voters directly elect their representatives. But the size of the House and parliamentary constituencies differ enormously. The size of the UK electorate corresponds to the state of Karnataka, which is less than a third of Uttar Pradesh. For this small population, the House of Commons has 650 MPs, against 543 in India. The average number of electors for each of these MPs is about 70,000, while India has an average of 1.6 million electors. If our constituencies were this small, we would have 12,000 MPs.
Reaching out to the voters has, therefore, a world of difference. Political parties in India complain that approaching the electorate in the span of 14 days (from the finalisation of nominations to polling day) is an uphill task. This also becomes an alibi, or a good reason, for large spending on the campaign. In the UK, the campaign is much cheaper, confined to door-to-door visits, TV debates and manifestoes. Political advertising via television and radio, except for scheduled party political broadcasts distributed evenly among the main parties, is not allowed, except on social media. Print media advertising is allowed, but is not considered effective. In India, that would be unthinkable. Indeed, mass media, despite the exorbitant costs (including the scourge of “paid news”), is increasingly playing a predominant role in campaigning.
Participation of voters is roughly the same in the UK, with a total turnout of 66 per cent against 66.4 per cent in India.
Also, while it has been going down in the UK since 1945 (83 per cent), in India, it has remained steady at around 60 per cent, going up and recording its highest in the 2014 election. This is largely due to the voter education programme started by the Election Commission of India in 2010. When we were trying to figure out how much we should earmark for voter education, we discovered that the UK election commission had earmarked as much as 20 per cent of its total budget. Youth apathy is common to both, though the EC’s efforts in India to increase youth participation has had a dramatic effect, since the launch of the National Voters Day focused on young people, leading to an addition of nearly 120 million voters between the last two elections.
Another common feature is the increasing demand in both countries for online voting. The demand in the UK has gathered speed after Estonia’s claim about the success of online voting in its general election in 2014. The opposition to it is equally vehement in both. India, though, is one up, with the use of EVMs since 1998.
A significant difference is that, in India, the EC decides the dates for the elections, while in the UK the date was always decided by the prime minister, giving the ruling party a political advantage. This went against the principle of a level playing field. In 2011, however, this was changed to a fixed-date election. This election was the first in this dispensation. What will happen to the fixed date in the event of a midterm general election is uncertain.
The biggest positive for the UK is that its system is clean, with no violence, booth capturing, impersonation and rigging. In India, this is a constant struggle. There is absolutely no noise, something that Indian leaders and media would describe as funereal. The use (or abuse) of money in the UK is nowhere near that of India’s. The system is trusting, while ours is full of suspicion. No identity card, no photo, no marking of fingers. For us, it is a constant cat and mouse game with mischief-makers. According to Peter Wardle, the chief executive of EC-UK, besides public trust in the system, what’s important is that the political parties trust each other.
A uniquely liberal feature is that about four million foreigners who are not British citizens are allowed to vote. They can even contest elections. Of these, 6,15,000 are Indian, and can influence the results in about 30 constituencies, including 19 out of 20 in London.
Both countries follow the first-past-the-post system of election, where the candidate getting the highest number of votes is declared elected. Questions are often raised about the fairness of the system. In the UK, it had snowballed to the extent that a referendum was held in 2011, though it failed. In India, the demand to replace it with a proportional representation system has become louder after 2014, when the party (the BSP) with the third-largest vote share in the country ended up with zero seats. In the UK, too, a similar phenomenon is noticed, with the UK Independence Party’s third-largest vote share converting into just one seat. I have already heard murmurs that the 2011 referendum was not reliable, as the issue was not fully disseminated.
In the end, our election management, more complex because of the mind-boggling diversities and problems, is a bit more fail-safe. In the previous UK election, there were complaints about postal ballots and some polling stations even in London falling short of ballot papers before the end of the poll — unthinkable in India. We reach our men and materials even to the most difficult places without fail, anticipating and preempting all contingencies.
While it has taken 300 years for the UK to reach this stage, our electoral system is only 65 years old and is already regarded, to quote Hillary Clinton, as a gold standard.
We must consolidate that characterisation by resolving the pending issues of money power and criminal taint with outstanding electoral reforms. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, armed with a decisive mandate, is best placed to do it.
The writer is a former chief election commissioner of India and author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder: the Making of the Great Indian Election’.