Elections in India are conducted entirely by the machinery of the government, which is taken over for the purpose by the Election Commission. This has resulted in the common people of the country having no experience of how polling actually takes place. Keeping the common people away from the actual conduct of the election has provided a chance to interested parties to make wild claims about how vitiated the entire electoral process is.
At the same time, of the nearly 50 lakh government employees who are shanghaied for poll duty, many feel extremely aggrieved and go to great lengths to get out of the duty. This distancing of the public from the election process needs to stop.
Every polling booth requires at least three polling staff and there are nearly 10 lakh polling booths planned for the 2019 national elections. If even half of these people were to come from among the common people of India, it would mean that in every national election, 15 lakh people would get to observe the electoral process from up and close. This would go a long way in ensuring a strong voice among the people that stands in support of the electoral process and becomes an essential foil to the negativity about elections that is routinely spewed by all political parties.
A major result of the distancing of the public from the conduct of elections has been a growing sense of distrust of the electoral process itself. The purported grounds of distrust are many. It began with people saying that the EVMs could be hacked. Yet, no one could ever prove such a wild claim. The distrust becomes possible because once in a rare while a machine has malfunctioned. The Election Commission responded by increasing the safeguards and the number of observers and instituting a VVPAT for generating a voter-verified paper audit trail. Yet the accusations of wrongdoing in the electoral process continue to grow.
Internationally, the Indian elections are regarded as one of the fairest in the world. The news magazine, The Economist, wondered in 2014 just how was it that India was so good at organising elections. And in 2019, it describes the slow pace of Indian elections as being integral to the code of conduct. In the general elections of 2014, the UNDP facilitated the visit of delegates from 20 countries ranging from members of the League of Arab Nations and Kenya to Nepal and Bhutan to witness the electoral process. At home, though, the atmosphere has steadily vitiated. No proof is needed; people only need to presume that there is no smoke without fire and those interested in undermining India’s elections can create the necessary smoke.
There is no reason to recruit the personnel, who are deployed for conducting the election process, from only government employees. The Representation of Peoples Act merely imposes a restriction that any person who is employed by a candidate or has worked on his behalf cannot be assigned poll duty. But anyone else can do the job. And that someone else need not be a salaried government official.
All the Commission really needs to do is to reach out to volunteers some months before the elections and verify that they are not employed by any candidate. Training volunteers should not be a problem. All this is within the letter of the law.
It is when people don’t know what is happening and the electoral process becomes a black box, that seeds of doubt are easy to sow. For political parties in India, attacking the Election Commission has become synonymous with attacking the government, even though the Commission today is completely independent of the government of the day.
The precautions taken by the Election Commission keep on increasing, including digital and policing measures of all varieties. At the moment, what is lacking is the human touch. The Election Commission now needs to co-opt the common people of India to bolster the legitimacy of India’s electoral processes.
The writer is professor, Contemporary History, Panjab University, Chandigarh