Book: An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election
Author: SY Quraishi
Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Pages: 416 pages
Price: Rs 795
Midway through the 16th general elections to the Lok Sabha, some facts about Indian democracy are evident. There is broad trust in the electoral process, with most citizens (and losing candidates) accepting the final results. There is increased engagement as seen in higher voter turnouts, a jump of about 8-10 percentage points from the 2009 elections. Political parties and individual candidates agree to follow certain norms of behaviour. A large part of the credit for these successes must go to the Election Commission of India (ECI).
Every society relies on the ability of various public institutions to deliver on their mandate. While many of our institutions have weakened over time, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has proved to be an exception. Anyone who has followed the conduct of elections will realise the logistical challenges involved in ensuring that 800 million people have the opportunity to vote. Election after election, the ECI manages these challenges, using the same bureaucracy and police force that are well known for poor service delivery at other times.
SY Quraishi’s recent book, An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election, provides an insider’s view of the process that has made free and fair elections possible. Quraishi served as an election commissioner (EC) from 2006 to 2010 and as the chief election commissioner (CEC) for the next two years. He puts this experience to good use while describing the election process and debating various issues and proposals for reform.
The first chapters of the book lay out the process of conducting elections. The steps taken by the ECI to ensure the integrity of the process include appointment of observers from a different state, use of central forces and transfer of officials believed to be close to an incumbent government. The use of the electronic voting machines (EVMs) has made invalid votes impossible and reduced events such as booth capturing and stuffing of ballot boxes. It describes the logistics required to get all polling material (122 items) and personnel to each polling booth (over 8.3 lakh booths in the 2009 general elections).
The ECI has tried to make it easy for citizens to be enrolled in the electoral rolls. It has worked with civil society groups to increase voter registration and voter turnout. The book contains interesting anecdotes on how the ECI has manned polling booths even in areas which have just one registered voter. To encourage women voters, every booth has a woman polling officer and the queue for women moves faster (two female voters move ahead in the queue for every male voter).
The ECI has convinced political parties to follow a model code of conduct, which they do despite the lack of any statutory power of enforcement. Quraishi argues against the proposals to have a statutory code, stating that the current system allows for swift action by the ECI, which is needed during an election. The fact that election petitions have often not been judged by High Courts for over five years supports his position.
The last few chapters of the book discuss some of the problems with the current system and proposals for reforms. These include the role of the media and the problem of “paid media”. The use of black money is described, including a list of 40 ways in which money is used illegally to influence voters. Quraishi also discusses a few topics that have seen public debate in recent times: the right to reject all candidates, the right to recall an elected representative, and a move from first-past-the-post system to a runoff between the top two contenders. He argues against all these proposals
Quraishi makes a case for increasing some of the powers of ECI. The commission has full control of the posting of key government officials during the polling period. He states that governments may penalise upright officers after the elections are over and suggests that the ECI retains control over their postings for a longer period. This begs the question of how long such control can be exercised. Perhaps, a system of protecting the civil services through an independent board would address the issue better.
After the 2009 elections, there were allegations that EVMs could be tampered with. The book explains why such tampering is not possible. However, another issue related to EVMs is ignored. Before they were introduced, ballot papers from different polling booths were mixed ahead of counting to prevent the targeting of any particular locality for their voting behaviour. EVMs provide candidates with booth-wise polling information which can be misused. The ECI has been unable to introduce technology that can add the results of several EVMs to mimic the mixing of ballot papers. To appreciate the complexity of conducting the massive exercise of Indian elections, this is a must-read.
M.R. Madhavan is co-founder and president, PRS Legislative Research