Conducting elections in the world’s largest plural society

The largest society is of course India.

This is just an amazing lecture by Dr. S. Y. Quraishi, Chief Election Commissioner of India (30-Jul-10 to 10=Jun-12). This was given in part of this annual lecture series – Nand & Jeet Khemka Distinguished Lecture Series.

I am not sure where to begin and end this lecture. Here is how ECI started:

Given the large diversity of the country which we deal with, we became a republic in 1950, and ’51-’52 was the first general election. Incidentally, Election Commission of India was born a day before India was born as a republic because the Constitution framers were very particular about the importance of the institution of elections in a democracy, and the kind of power they gave to the Election Commission, the independence and distance they created between the Election Commission and the Government has really come in very handy.

We got equal voting rights—men and women—at that time it was twenty-one years, all in one stroke. Whereas in the United States, it took 131 years for women to get enfranchised. Even in the mother of democracies—UK—it took one hundred years. And other countries also have taken decades if not around a century. But at that time when India became a republic and a democracy, people frowned upon this adventure. They thought this was a grave adventure, with a country with 84 percent illiteracy. How will they cope with the responsibility of democracy? And it will fail. But history has proved otherwise. Now, I want to give you these figures.

 Guha referred this as the most reckless experiment in human history.

He speaks on the huge diversity –  castes, geographical, religions, languages etc.

Then, to protect the pluralistic society, in fact, we are very proud of our pluralism. Everybody is equal. Our laws are very protective of a pluralistic society. In the context of election, there cannot be any appeal on the grounds of religion, caste, creed, community, or language. I have mentioned a section for those of you who may be interested in electoral laws of India. Then you can’t promote feelings of hatred, ill-will, or enmity between different classes. You can’t use religious institutions for electioneering. There is a punishment for interference in electoral rights of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. If these lower castes are prevented from coming out and voting, there are senior penal provisions in the acts, and the MCC, the moral code of conduct, this is one term I would like you to take note of. This is a unique instrument that we have a court developed by the political parties themselves, and is imposed so strictly, so rigorously that leaves the electoral system free from animosities, rivalries, fistfights. It keeps the campaign very healthy.

How transgenders were allowed to vote:

Incidentally, we recently gave transgenders, they already had the right to vote, but there was a technical problem, that when our enumerators went to them and asked for their gender, and if he or she said woman and it sounded like a man— it was not accepted, vice versa. So this demand came to us and we took exactly thirty seconds to decide that one million transgenders cannot be excluded from the polling process, and we said alright they will be called “other gender,” O. Male, female, and O, was introduced. And it received great appreciation nationwide. Now, the new Census is taking place. They have adopted this from us because you cannot keep one million people out of democratic process. We have now recently also given voting rights to non-resident Indians, those who still have Indian passport. But since some of you are NRI, let me make it clear, it is on an experimental basis. You have to register yourself at the place of your permanent residence on your passport, and you have to be physically present there to vote—no postal ballot please for you.

How large is Indian election?

We have more voters than all fifty countries of Europe, and Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan put together. We still have a gap of fifty million if you would volunteer some more countries. We have more voters than fifty-four countries of Africa put together; North and South America, more than fifty-six countries put together, an entire Commonwealth put together, that is the size of India’s electorate. This is the same thing graphically. But let me tell you, it is not a question of size alone. We have these numbers but it is the complexity, the enormity, the diversity, and attention to detail, and how we have a voting booth with only one voter. There were two until last year. There was one in Kerala where this man normally would come after lunch at 2:00, but legally we are supposed to set up a booth at 7:00 in the morning in case he chooses to come. And even after he had cast his vote, we cannot close the shop because if somebody else turns up and says “He is not the real person; I was the real voter,” then there is a disputed vote there. So the shop has to be open until 5:00. Unfortunately, last year he died. There was a news item that said “Death of a Polling Booth

On scheduling elections:

Now, scheduling the election. People incidentally, it is the Election Commission of India decides the dates of the election. Unlike in Britain, where the Prime Minister announces the date, no way. In fact, in India, the Prime Minister will probably be the last one to know what is the date. Why? Because by timing the election at the time of your choosing, you are actually misusing an authority. So that there is fairness for everybody, the decision is left to us. Six months before the last day of the Parliament, we have the option to do the election anytime in those six months. Or suppose the Parliament is dissolved separately, then six months after that, we have this flexibility.

But of course all this flexibility and all this power, ladies and gentleman, I would like to assure you, that we use very very judiciously. Even if we have unlimited power, the power of the people, their perception, is extremely important. If I do anything undesirable, it will take minutes for people to realize that something is amiss somewhere. So we try to be judicious in our discretionary powers also.


A case from MP elections:

There are checks on parties in power. They cannot, even a Chief Minister cannot go on an official tour. Even for that matter, the Prime Minister cannot go on an official tour and still do campaigning. If he is going for campaigning, he has to go only for that. If we find any leader using any government transport, or transport at government expense, he will be in trouble. There was this case—Madhya Pradesh anyone from Madhya Pradesh?—when we announced elections in Madhya Pradesh, and the Chief Minister who happened to be in Washington and instead of knowing that the election is pending, we announced the election and all the populous steam that he had in his pocket, very close to the election. He got pre-empted from doing so. He was very upset, angry. All kinds of political pressure came for changing our decision, which of course there was no question of changing our decision. He came with half of his Cabinet using a state plane, to meet us. And after that not only did we reject his request because it was unreasonable, we impose a fine of two million rupees on him because he has used government transport.

On why tech is low in EVMs:

Our approach is very clear that for voting process itself, our voting machine is a very simple seventeenth century calculator technology. Like an adding machine, you press a button, one vote gets captured. You press another, another vote gets added. Although I dare say we are a virtual IT superpower, but consciously we use very low technology because we don’t want machine to be networked because they can be hacked. We don’t want another Wikileak, and they do not use an operating system because an operating system on your laptop, even a child can make a computer game. You vote for X and your vote will go for Y. For every other thing, we use high-tech, but the voting process is very very simple.

On innovative ways to bribe voters:

We came across lots of innovative frauds. For instance, how expenditure ceiling was being violated. Our observers, one of them saw a big marriage party going on—four thousand people, lavish spread, and liquor. And somehow out of curiosity he went inside to see what was happening, and he found that there was no bridegroom, and there was no bride. It was not a marriage party. It was a bogus party only to entertain voters by way of bribe. Then we came across a very standard practice, only we were sleeping. Most marriages take place during election period, most birthdays. And there is a…ceremony. Most NRIs celebrate those ceremonies here.

I can go on and on. It is just an amazing read.  Having wanted to read on the topic, this was just what the doctor ordered. Full of insights and wit.

Excited on reading this, I tried to search for more research work on ECI. But hardly anything available on Google. In case people have some more research work which evaluated ECI performance etc. it will be great..


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