The dust has settled on the polling fields of Bihar. A new government has assumed office. The “masked” swearing-in ceremony was a sobering reminder of these difficult times. The run-up to the elections, amid a pandemic, turned the spotlight on the Election Commission. A quotidian affair became an extraordinary challenge.
Democracies around the world were equally confounded. It was a Hobson’s choice — to conduct elections in time or to defer them to an uncertain future. A few nations dithered, while others like South Korea went ahead. On September 25, the Chief Election Commissioner, while announcing the schedule of elections, proclaimed that it was a “leap of faith and not a leap into the dark.”
The numbers were staggering. Bihar, with more than 73 million electors, outstrips the entire population of the United Kingdom. A state which was bequeathed a proud legacy of having given the world its first republic is no ordinary state. A constellation of factors forced it to demonstrate leadership yet again. The die was cast and elections had to be held in time. A niggling doubt remained. Would voters shy away from turning up at the polling booth? Global experts raised a red flag on the possibility of low turnout. A mammoth preparation exercise followed. Consultation with political parties, government machinery and other stakeholders was set into motion. Detailed instructions and advisories spelt out safety and health protocols. The results were astounding. People of Bihar belied all expectations. The numbers were higher than what they had been five years ago. More than 57 per cent voters exercised their franchise in a three-phase poll. It was a reaffirmation of their unwavering faith in democracy. Equally, it was a testimony to the abiding trust in the Election Commission to conduct elections which are not only free and fair, but safe as well.
A few things stand out from the massive electoral exercise, which deserve special attention. First, in a state with the highest population density, voters even in remote rural hinterland demonstrated resolve and discipline. For the most part, they queued up as prescribed, maintaining the etiquette of social distancing. Managing crowds during campaigns was a tougher proposition. Cases were registered in instances of egregious violations.
Second, the messaging of safe protocols resonated with the masses. People, who were ordinarily unaccustomed to wearing masks even during times of contagion, came masked up or wrapped their traditional gamchha or sari as a measure of protection. Gloves and protective gear hitherto associated with hospitals became embedded in the election process with ease.
Third, even when afforded a choice to use the postal ballot, an overwhelming majority of the aged and the infirm preferred to use the EVM at the polling station. The much-maligned machine won over the paper ballot. This is a tribute to the belief of Indian people in the robustness of the electronic machine, political rhetoric notwithstanding.
Fourth, the entire administrative machinery of the state, which willy-nilly gets involved in elections one way or the other, worked as a team united towards a common goal. The health department of Bihar delivered not only the kits to be used by over 7,00,000 polling personnel, but also made precise arrangements for safe disposal of bio-medical waste. Police and excise authorities stepped up their vigil, especially along the borders, making record seizures of cash and liquor.
The Election Commission plays the pre-eminent role of superintendence, direction and control of elections, unlike some other democracies. The Constitution arms it with the necessary heft to enforce order. Each election has seen an incremental improvement over previous ones. The commission has embraced the use of technology on a much greater scale than far more advanced nations. The entire cycle of voting, from registration of voters to counting, is a part of an integrated digital framework. Candidates and political parties secure permissions online and file nominations digitally. People with disabilities are able to voluntarily make requests for wheelchairs and special assistance. Deployment of the electronically transmitted postal ballot for members of the armed forces and diplomatic missions abroad has helped in increasing their participation in elections. A crowd-sourcing of time-stamped photos and videos alert the authorities on violations of the model code of conduct, prompting quick action. A national election management body has helped in the standardisation of rules of the game and defining uniform processes for registration, voting and counting. The utility of this institution was also brought in sharp relief, given the timely and orderly declaration of results. Trenchant critics also raised a toast to the immaculate arrangements for Bihar elections.
Waves of pandemics, by their very nature, take time to abate. Some early signals of development of a vaccine have raised hope of humanity beating the vexatious virus. Democracy, which defines the soul of our nation, cannot be held hostage to the invisible enemy. Even a force majeure cannot shake the democratic compact which binds our country.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 25, 2020 under the title ‘Pulling off the pandemic poll’. The writer is Deputy Election Commissioner, Election Commission of India. Views are personal.