Their Westminster, and ours

Despite the same electoral model, there are marked differences in how polls are conducted in Britain and in India

Written by S Y Quraishi | Updated: June 8, 2017 6:01 am
United Kingdom, Britain election Illustration by C R Sasikumar

The UK is all set for a mid-term general election on June 8, which could only be derailed if there is yet another terror attack. While the poll issues involved and the fluctuating fortunes of political parties are a matter of separate analysis, I will confine myself to the more mundane electoral system and its management issues. When the country had its last general election on May 7, 2015, I was an independent observer along with a sizeable international group, mostly election commissioners, many of whom were my old colleagues and counterparts. I was allotted three constituencies. Interestingly, two of these gave two successive prime ministers — David Cameron and Theresa May (I wonder if a third one is waiting in the wings!).

It is interesting to compare the system in the UK and India, which hold many similarities as well as significant differences. The first significant difference is that in India, the Election Commission of India (ECI) decides the dates for the elections keeping political parties, including the ruling one, guessing, whereas in the UK, the date was always decided by the prime minister, giving the ruling party a political advantage. This surely went against the principle of a level playing field. In 2011, therefore, the old system was changed to a fixed date election — May 7, every five years.

The 2015 election was the first under this system. But, in an article I wrote for this paper (‘Britain’s electoral plumbing’, IE, May 12, 2015), I raised a question as to what would happen to the fixed date in case of a mid-term general election. Who imagined that this question would come to haunt the British in less than two years?

The basic common factor is the electoral model itself that we both follow — the Westminster model. Our Lok Sabha and their House of Commons are counterparts to which voters directly elect their representatives. But the size of the house and the parliamentary constituencies differ enormously. The size of the Indian electorate is 20 times that of the UK which almost corresponds to the state of Rajasthan. Despite the small population, the House of Commons has a huge strength of 650 MPs as 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. Campaign styles and logistics thus are worlds apart.

In the UK, campaigning is much cheaper, confined to door to door visits by candidates or agents, and TV debates. Paid political advertising on TV and radio is not permitted — this is unthinkable in India where mass media, despite the exorbitant costs, is the backbone of campaigns. Paid news, which is rampant in India, is unheard of in the UK. There is a cap on election expenditure of both the candidates and the parties in the UK, whereas in India, it extends only to the candidates. That’s a huge loophole that raises campaign expenditure to obscene levels.

The participation of voters in the UK was the same with a total turnout of 66.1 per cent against 66.4 per cent in India in 2014; however, over the years, it’s coming down in the UK and going up in India, thanks to the voter education programme started by the ECI in 2010. Youth apathy has been common to both, though the ECI’s efforts to increase youth participation have had a dramatic effect, especially since the launching of the National Voters Day, focussed on young persons, leading to an addition of nearly 120 million voters (three UKs!) between the last two elections.

India is also one-up using electronic voting machines (EVMs) since 1998 while the demand for electronic voting in the UK has never been very audible. The clamour for internet or online voting however is gathering slow momentum in both countries. The biggest plus for the UK is that their system is very clean, with no violence, booth capturing, no impersonation and no rigging. For us in India, this is a constant struggle. Their system is very trusting: The UK is the only country in the world where no identity proof is required. No photo on the electoral rolls. No marking of fingers. There are no party agents in the booth to verify the voter’s identity. There is no police near polling stations, whereas, in India, a booth has to be secured like a fort. We are accused of killing the festival of democracy; the British are happy with quiet, civilised polling.

A very significant difference is that poll day is not a holiday. To enable working class persons to vote, the voting hours are long — 7 am to 10 pm. They normally vote either early in the morning or late evening. Housewives and the elderly vote during the day. So, the scene is never chaotic. The UK has about 8 million foreigners, nearly two million of whom are from Commonwealth countries. The latter are entitled to vote. Of these, there are over 6,15,000 Indian voters who alone can influence the results in 30 constituencies. Voices are often raised against this anomaly.

Both countries follow the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) 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 snowballed to the extent that a referendum was held in 2011, though it failed with 68 to 32 per cent vote (with a low turnout of 42 per cent). Many questioned the fairness of the result as the government conducted only perfunctory publicity about it.

In India, the demand for replacing FPTP with Proportional Representation has become louder after the 2014 general election, when a party (the BSP) with the third largest vote share in the country ended up with zero share in parliamentary seats. In the end, questions have sometimes been raised about the logistics and management of elections in the UK. In the 2010 and 2015 UK election, there were complaints about postal ballots and some polling stations, even in London, falling short of ballot papers before the poll’s end, unthinkable in India. Our election management, despite its mind-boggling problems, like the Maoist insurgency, militancy, the constant shadow of terrorism, is quite fail-safe.

Brexit being at the heart of debate in this election, global interest in this poll is greater than ever. Let us now see how it plays out.

The writer is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election’

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