So India is all set to witness the biggest-ever election. With 81 crore voters and 11 million personnel conducting the polls at 9.36 lakh polling stations using 1.4 million EVMs, the Indian election is considered the biggest such event in the world. This is a management event that expects zero error and 100 per cent success. For the Election Commission, a 60 per cent successful election, or even 80 or 90 per cent success, is not an option.
The EC is now a very experienced institution, with a well-oiled machinery. Its foremost concern every time is, of course, a peaceful poll. The safety of voters, of polling staff and even of security forces is always an overriding concern. We cannot afford to lose any lives. The muscle power of the proverbial bahubali or strongman is now history. Vulnerability mapping, deployment of paramilitary forces and the 24×7 video watch on them ensures that they behave.
The other ongoing issue concerns the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). This is the most dreaded weapon in the hands of the EC. Every leader worth his salt shudders even at the thought of receiving a model code notice. Many citizens, however, feel disappointed that all that the EC does against defaulters is issue warnings, reprimands, condemnation or censure. They probably expect drastic action like the cancellation of elections, derecognition of the political party concerned or even the registration of criminal cases. They go to the extent of calling the EC toothless. This perception is absolutely flawed. The MCC’s moral authority is extremely high. The fact that even the issue of a notice hits the headlines and becomes a subject of editorial comment for days on end is a major punishment for the defaulting politician, who cannot afford to lose even 1 per cent of public support. Have you seen any hate speech in the last few years? Personal attacks have become a rare occurrence. The abuse of government facilities by the ruling party has been reduced to zero.
There have also been new developments in the last few years. The impact of these will be seen in the forthcoming elections for the first time.
Foremost among them is an unprecedented awakening among the youth and women in the wake of the creation of a voter education division in the EC. Its programme, SVEEP (systematic voters’ education and electoral participation), has metamorphosed voter apathy into a participation revolution. Four years ago, only 10 to 12 per cent of young voters who were 18-19 years old were enrolled. Now, the figure has gone up by an impressive margin. National Voters’ Day (NVD), observed on January 25, was specifically created to awaken the youth and women. The four NVDs that have been held so far have achieved enormous voter registration. The addition of over 100 million voters is largely a result of youth mobilisation through the NVDs.
Voter turnout has also increased phenomenally in the 22 states that went to polls in the last two years. Fourteen of these recorded their highest ever turnouts. In 17 of the 22 states that went to polls after the introduction of SVEEP, women outvoted men, despite an adverse gender ratio.
The “none of the above” (NOTA) option will be used for the first time in a general election, though it was used in the five state elections held over November-December 2013. Since this has not created the right to reject, I do not expect to see many people using it.
A significant new element would be the voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT), though it will be implemented in just about 20,000 polling stations because of manufacturing constraints. Indian EVMs are absolutely reliable and, as Chief Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath said, they have stood the test of time. Yet a VVPAT answers the demands of the last of the doubting Thomases.
Another game-changer will be the distribution of voter slips by the EC itself. Ever since it was introduced in the Bihar assembly election in 2010, it has significantly enhanced voter turnout, by making it convenient for voters to locate their booths and their serial number on the electoral roll. It is also accepted as an alternative ID. Since it is issued just a few days before the polls, it has become the most dependable ID.
Another first will be the induction of IPS officers as police observers, a practice first tried in the 2011 West Bengal assembly elections to great effect. Earlier, only IAS officers were deployed as general observers and IRS officers as expenditure observers. Since the SVEEP is a major trust area, as Sampath announced, Indian Information Service officers will now be sent to see that awareness generation activities are on track too.
The EC is a very dynamic organisation and is always learning. The fact that a whole army of bright bureaucrats works overtime behind the scenes ensures the constant flow of new ideas. One such idea came from a young woman collector in Arunachal Pradesh — a live webcast from some of the remotest polling booths. It was so effective that the EC made it an all-India practice. One interesting point to be noted about this greatest man-made exercise is that it is conducted entirely by the much-derided bureaucracy. An election is their opportunity to prove their competence, as they do every time. When insulated from political pressures, they work under the hawk eye of the EC to conduct an event that Hillary Clinton recently described as the “global gold standard”.
The writer is a former chief election commissioner