Free and fair elections

Lessons from the recently concluded Bihar assembly elections N Gopalaswamy Delhi The recently concluded elections to the Bihar assembly have attracted nation-wide attention and appreciation because of the extraordinarily (by Bihar standards) peaceful poll perceived to be by far the fairest in that part of the country. A keen watcher of the electoral scene in India remarked that this poll has demonstrated that the election commission of India (ECI) has successfully migrated over the years from macro-management at the national level to booth-level management at the field level and this change of focus has led to the success of the campaign of the commission for a free and fair poll. Naturally one would be curious to know what steps went into making this change effective. The commission has always believed that the first prerequisite for a free and fair poll is a clean and up-to-date electoral roll. The commission has strived to achieve this but with varying degrees of success mostly decided by the level of commitment of the staff at the field level. What made the difference this time in Bihar was the availability of the rolls in electronic form and technology-savvy officers. It is a lot easier now to scour the rolls for duplicate names and suspicious entries. An exercise was undertaken to compare the mid-term population figures of citizens 18 years and above in age with the total of electors in the electoral rolls and identify the districts, talukas and villages showing conspicuous deviation and therefore requiring intervention to closely scrutinise the rolls in those identified areas. A software programme generated a list of households showing more than 10-15 voters and these were also verified to eliminate the names of the dead and migrated voters from the rolls. These steps were combined with the use of photo-matching software to elicit possible duplicate entries from the Electoral Photo Identity Card (EPIC) records and their subsequent verification led to the deletion of in all 18.31 lakh voters from the rolls in Bihar and with the addition of 4.83 lakh new voters, the net reduction amounted to three per cent of the total electorate of the state. Simultaneously a campaign was mounted to raise the percentage of electors covered by EPIC. The constant review and monitoring of the progress of the work paid rich dividends in raising the overall EPIC coverage from 57 per cent to 84 per cent for the state with some constituencies achieving 90-95 per cent coverage. It became possible then for the ECI to insist on the production of EPIC as proof of identity on the day of poll thus doing away with less reliable and more manipulation-prone documents. It was gratifying to see on poll days, in most visuals in the electronic and print media, electors proudly displaying their EPIC while awaiting their turn to vote. Given the worrying situation on the law and order front, the phasing of the election and the induction of the central paramilitary forces in substantial strength were important in ensuring a peaceful poll. A part of the force was inducted a few weeks in advance in order to sanitise the area by conducting raids to unearth illegal firearms and to nab absconding criminals. A strict monitoring of the progress in the execution of non-bailable warrants issued by the courts helped to keep a check on the criminals. On the poll day it was endeavoured to cover almost all sensitive polling stations with armed police either from the central forces or from the Bihar armed police. The designation of a polling station as sensitive is always a contentious issue between the different political parties who try to influence the local administration and in the past allegations used to be made that the district administration was influenced by the government of the day or by influential politicians. This time round the ECI team consisting of the chief electoral officer Bihar, NK Sinha, and the deputy election commissioner, Anand Kumar, worked out a list of sensitive polling stations for each constituency using the past electoral data and the input from the district administration, the election commission observers in the field and the senior officers of the state police about vulnerable areas and past poll-related crime record of different areas. The final list of sensitive booths left very little scope for manipulation and the familiar allegations of last minute switch of the polling stations being given armed police cover under political pressure could be eliminated. The phasing of the elections and the changes made therein as the elections progressed also helped to improve and maximise the armed police cover. The effect of withdrawing some constituencies from the previously designated dates of poll to fresh dates within the overall spread helped to increase armed police cover to practically 95 per cent of the polling stations in every phase. Thus the holding of the poll on seven days instead of the previously designated four days helped in eliminating any booth capture and the re-polls came down substantially, from about 1,764 in the February-March 2005 assembly election to 301 in the October-November 2005 elections. The ECI's no-nonsense approach in transferring poor performers or partisan officials and inducting efficient and neutral officers sent the right signals to the bureaucracy to perform without fear or favour. One is sorry and also loath to admit it but it is true that the state being under president's rule helped as the state administration was more forthcoming and its officials were not subjected to contrary pulls. The constant monitoring and frequent visits by the commission itself and the frequent visits by its adviser KJ Rao, especially his supervision on the poll days, all helped to create the right atmosphere for a poll that was hailed as the fairest in Bihar. Much has been said about the low polling in Bihar. Its true that compared to the lok sabha elections of May 2004 (58 per cent), polling was lower by about 12 percentage points in the assembly polls at 46.47 per cent in February-March 2005. But ascribing it to the presence of a large posse of armed police force as has been sought to be done by some quarters would be totally wrong. If this argument were to be true, then one should have had even a further lower level of polling in the October-November 2005 elections as compared to February-March poll because the armed police coverage this time was substantially higher: almost twice. But the polling percentage was more or less the same at 45.59 per cent in October-November 2005 even when the overall electors' strength went down by 2.5 per cent. Having said that it is also necessary to admit that if half the electorate does not consider it worthwhile exercising their franchise, there is something seriously amiss requiring remedial measures. Over the years the ECI has also been very strictly monitoring the actions of governments and political parties to ensure their adherence to the model code of conduct. That document itself is in a way a symbol of the democratic spirit of our political parties as it was evolved by them by consensus, in the quest for setting up a level-playing field, with the ECI designated as the umpire to administer it. While on the one hand some dent has been made in electoral expenses by ECI keeping a strict watch and accounting for on expenditure on publicity and campaigning by restraining posters, wall-writing and so on by individual candidates, it is common knowledge that the ceiling on election expenditure is more observed only in breach. Further there is a glaring loophole in the law in that there is no ceiling on expenditure by a party organisation. The burgeoning of money power in elections is a cause for serious concern and can be ignored only at cost of undermining democracy. State funding of candidates without putting a ceiling on party expenditure monitoring would be an exercise in futility and would not solve the problem. There can be no free and fair elections if money power and muscle power decide the outcome. Right thinking citizens need to ponder over the question as to how money power in elections can be curbed. Perhaps the greater transparency in governance that can come about by a vigilant public opinion stridently exercising its right to information holds the promise and answer to that question. The strong stand taken by the supreme court and many high courts in poll-related litigation has struck a blow for the empowerment of the voters and the civil society. Another good augury is the emergence of the civil society groups and the vigil mounted by a proactive media which will certainly help to improve the quality of the polls. India will be a sham democracy if the very foundation of a democratic polity, namely the free and fair elections, is missing from the scene. It needs the coming together of all the stakeholders — the citizens at large, the election commission and the political class. When that happens our dream of seeing free, fair and peaceful poll like it is happening in many countries of the world would turn to reality. That will be the day when Indians could proudly say that India is also truly a democracy. The author is an election commissioner with the Election Commission of India