Senakeithei village in Manipur’s Ukhrul district was the scene of a phenomenon that has long faded from Indian elections — booth capturing. A faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland frightened and forced people to stay home unless they voted for the Naga People’s Front. Citizens were resigned, election officers had been coopted, the CRPF looked away saying that only security — as in, violence — was their remit, and determined miscreants registered multiple votes under various names, rendering the election worthless as a test of popular will. But this incident, chilling as it was, is a rarely seen subversion in India’s electoral process now. And for that, the credit goes to the Election Commission, the overseer of the process, which has become one of the most trusted public institutions in the last two decades.
Booth capturing used to involve the storming or takeover of polling stations by the supporters of one party, intimidating or preventing people from casting a vote for rivals, stuffing ballot boxes or interfering with them to change outcomes. That has changed decisively now, and elections have been made steadily fairer by the EC. The introduction of electronic voting machines has made polls even more tamper-proof.
The EC has worked to expand access, travelled to far-flung corners, cleaned up registration rolls, harnessed technology, and simplified procedures to make sure every citizen can exercise her franchise. In sharp contrast to the Manipur episode, this scrupulous conduct of elections has encouraged rebel groups to become stakeholders, invited disaffected citizens to believe in their vote’s capacity to affect political predicaments.
For decades after Independence, the election commissioner was simply a senior government functionary. The EC could have ended up like the office of the governor, as a perch for services rendered to the powerful, but instead it has renewed and revitalised itself remarkably, becoming a fiercely independent, multi-member body, enforcing a strict code of conduct, curbing the excesses of parties and candidates, and going out of its way to level the field.
Election commissioners have often butted heads with the political establishment to ensure the freedom and fairness of our elections. Since the 11th Lok Sabha election in particular, the EC has worked to drastically improve law and order, rebuking Union and state governments, directing administrations to freeze firearms licences, keeping open the possibility of preventive arrests in sensitive constituencies, supervising the size and quality of security, and insisting on the presence of public employees to monitor events. The result is that even as countries like the US routinely worry about elections being “stolen” and the possible skews of electronic voting machines, Indians have been unique in reposing their faith in a robust Election Commission.