Public and the poll

ELECTION-COMMISSION-MEDIUM The EC, while appointing lakhs of people for poll duty, confines itself to the ranks of public servants or to the payrolls of organisations funded by the government.

The Election Commission should involve citizens in the electoral process.

Elections in the world’s largest democracy are a colourful and noisy affair, with much public participation in rallies, on news channels, in print and what have you. But one crucial area where the public is completely missing is from the conduct of the electoral process itself. The Election Commission of India (EC), while appointing lakhs of people for poll duty, confines itself to the ranks of public servants or to the payrolls of organisations funded by the government. There is nothing in the law that prevents the EC from involving the ordinary citizen in this task. Conventionally, however, the understanding has been that this is a job for public servants alone.

The Representation of the People Act merely enjoins upon the district election officer to appoint presiding officers for various polling stations. The one restriction to be observed is that persons who have either been employed by a candidate or have worked on his behalf cannot be deputed for poll duty. The act also says that, for the period of duty, the person concerned would be deemed to be on deputation with the EC. But it nowhere says that only government servants can be chosen for such tasks. Yet, this has been the practice for the past so many decades.

A paradigm of the rights and duties of a citizen that only spells out rights but no duties is by definition a partial one. They are two sides of the same coin. If we were to compare this with how American democracy functions, we find serious differences. The day the United States confers citizenship on an individual is the day that an official comes and informs the citizen that he is now obliged to also render jury duty, community service and a long list of duties towards state and society.

This is an important mechanism insofar as it seeks to involve civil society in the functioning of the state. Such an involvement could conceivably have two effects: one, it would help inform the citizen about how the state functions; and two, such an involvement could go a long way in improving transparency in the functioning of the state itself.

This is by no means a comment on how the EC functions. It has been observed by many impartial observers that elections in India today are among the fairest in the world. But there is always scope for bridging the gap between state and citizen and for improving transparency.
Currently, the ordinary citizen is completely uninformed about state processes and procedures, so much so that a completely new profession has arisen in India — that of the middleman, the fixer, who charges a fee for his services. So complex is the paraphernalia of government and so removed are citizens from the processes of governance that the space is wide open for an entire tribe of fixers. These people feed on citizens looking for a quick response from a bureaucratic machinery riddled with red tape and opacity.

Recently, a young civil servant in Maharashtra attempted to deconstruct government for the citizen. He brought out a publication in which he tried to explain the process for obtaining various services from the municipal corporation where he was posted. He got transferred for his pains. Most corporators seemed to feel that so much transparency would leave them with very little role to play.

It is precisely this kind of phenomenon that we need to address. To talk of citizen-oriented governance, of computerised facilitation centres, is just not enough. What is really needed is to involve citizens in routine tasks of governance so that government could become more transparent. Such an attempt would also breach the wall of suspicion and distrust that increasingly characterises the interface between state and civil society in India. Some attempt has been made to move in such a direction by introducing the idea of a social audit of government schemes. If a citizen can be authorised to perform a social audit of a government scheme, surely he can be empowered to participate in implementing the scheme as well.

There are many routine tasks in governance that would demand only a few hours of a person’s time in the month. The conduct of elections, school education and public health are a few such areas. Manning a poll booth or helping organise health camps or serving on the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan committee for improving school education, are some tasks that could be performed by any citizen. Pilot projects like the Bangalore Agenda Task Force, which attempted to involve citizens in municipal planning, do exist. The need of the hour is for the state to systematise those attempts and to widen the platform for public participation in the duties of governance.

The writer teaches contemporary Indian history at Panjab University, Chandigarh.