Careful planning, strict enforcement and citizen participation define the success of the world's largest democratic process, just witnessed in the country. The 15th national elections presented successful management of a process that is simply unprecedented. There is something to cheer for everyone; even those voters whose preferred candidates lost can claim successful participation in electing representatives in a clean, fair and relatively peaceful manner.
This is a significant achievement by any standards, in a large diverse country. Considering that in the past, Indian elections have not always been peaceful and a number of times the manipulative hands of ruling parties has been visible, this present situation is a positive development. Booth capturing, as well as preventing genuine voters from exercising their rights through silent intimidation or blatant violence were regular features of past elections. This time, even though a number of candidates with a criminal background were in the fray, the election process was cleaner and genuinely enabled the citizens to exercise their choice. Citizens may be electing criminals as their leaders, but it is their personal decision and not forced upon them.
A number of reasons may be stated for this transformation, which holds lessons for concerned citizens struggling to evolve a genuine democratic polity.
An independent Election Commission, responsible for conducting the elections is an important factor in the electoral process. Despite clouds over the present Commissioner, by and large the administrators have not compromised their integrity and not succumbed to the diktats of ruling parties. Of course T N Sheshan and James Lyndogh are best known for standing up to the government in office, and their examples helped maintain the dignity of this institution. Nevertheless, a significant number of administrative steps taken over the years have also helped better manage the vast machinery and keep its functions transparent.
The decision to spread the voting process almost for a month to conduct the national elections appears not only right but necessary too. In the large and contentious regions such as the States of UP, Bihar and West Bengal, staggering the elections over four to five stages has helped in augmenting police personnel from other regions and enhancing security at sensitive booths. Clearly, the days when landlords could prevent lower classes from casting their ballot and blatantly 'capturing the booth' are over. A mix of Central and State forces, stronger supervision and neutral observers have all helped to prevent interference in the voting process.
The introduction of electronic voting machines has also hardened the target for brigands, preventing them from stuffing the ballot box with snatched votes. Now, the machines are so programmed that these accept only a limited number of votes in a given time period. Consequently, forcibly casting votes at any polling booth is now almost impossible to execute.
In addition, identity cards helped to maintain the sanctity of the voter. Furthermore, careful attention to the revision and verification of electoral rolls has been another step in strengthening the integrity of the voting system. The Commission has done well to publish these electoral rolls on the web to establish their authenticity. In the large country, with millions of eligible voters and lacking any system of established acceptable identity, there will be complaints of missing names in the electoral rolls but no large scale omission has been reported.
Another promising step has been the assertion of Commission's authority over all public officials engaged in election duties. The policy of deputing officials outside their jurisdictions through random deputation is perhaps one of the best methods of preventing external influences from operating during the elections. For instance, such a measure has been very effective in preventing the ruling party from influencing local officials. Neutral observers and deployment of central government police forces in targeted regions has further ensured fair administration of the election process.
A transparent system
It is not only necessary to take effective steps but also to ensure that all actions are transparent and open to public scrutiny. In this, the passage of the Right to Information Act has been a significant development for it has finally forced the bureaucracy to open its records and face accountability for its decisions. At least, in the electoral process it is this mechanism which has forced every candidate to file complete information about their financial assets and details of criminal cases. Interestingly, the Commission has made these affidavits available on its web site that can now be verified by any ordinary citizen. Perhaps these measures and strict scrutiny by officials helped disqualify 3423 candidates to participate in the recent elections.
Identity cards helped to maintain the sanctity of the voter.
All these measures and the strict implementation of electoral laws helped ensure that the sanctity of the process was not compromised and every voter could make an informed and free choice in selecting the representative.
Another novel feature has been the application of technology by the police forces in managing their deployment and resource mobilisation. The Indian police leadership has a large number of engineers and technocrats amongst its ranks and these young officers developed customized software to administer their responsibilities.
For instance, a young Superintendent in Madhya Pradesh designed special software to categorize polling booths in terms of their vulnerability based upon geographical isolation, past incidents and intelligence about criminal elements engaged by different candidates. This software was shared with many other officers across the country. Another application was to give every police officer a unique identity number which helped track the deployment, supply of equipment and movement as they patrolled their dispersed jurisdictions.
The Election Commission too set up a nation wide communications network that assisted in monitoring events at every single polling booth spread over the country. Incidents at every booth were quickly reported, monitored and supervised across the country from Election Commission headquarters. Reserve forces were made available at important junctions to ensure quick response to any emergency situation. All such measures helped spur the official machinery towards greater professional conduct and constant supervision helped to deliver the results.
Growing interest among voters
However, no democratic process can be planted from the top. Ultimately, the citizens have to become active partners and keep vigilance over their rights enshrined in the constitution. While the common citizens were voting in large numbers a remarkable change occurred after the Mumbai attacks that galvanized the middle class and educated Indians to demand accountability from the politicians. A welcome feature of the present elections was the greater efforts by NGOs to educate voters, protest political shenanigans and function as vigilantes in strengthening democratic roots. Perhaps, inspired by Obama's technology driven, grassroots election campaign, young Indians came forward to encourage voter registration, transparency, and political advocacy campaigns.
Nonpartisan all-volunteer collaboration between software developers, designers, academics, and other professionals, created a virtual election monitoring platform. For example, Vote Report India web-site allowed users to report violations of the Model Code of Conduct through SMS, email, and web reports. Other citizen groups provided information about contesting candidates and a nation wide Campaign for No Criminals in Politics created a database of criminal contenders. A National Election Watch facilitated collaboration of almost 1200 NGOs led by Association for Democratic Reforms. They presented information about constituencies and candidates with user comments and ratings on candidates.
An interesting website called Wada Na Todo Abhiyan [do not break the promise] came forward to hold the political parties accountable to their pledge to end poverty, social exclusion and discrimination. Even corporate houses become involved and Tata Tea-led campaign Jaago Re! One Billion Votes helped over 500,000 online voter registrations in 6 months.
This combination of strict vigilance, better communication and analysis of information in real time through modern technology perhaps made the difference on the ground. The political parties were forced to abide by rules that they flouted disdainfully in previous elections. The politicians learned to speak carefully and keep themselves within the boundary of the Code of Conduct, particularly in their public speeches. The transparent independence of the Election Commission and professional management of police forces enhanced the faith of common people in the electoral process.
It was therefore not surprising that even in Kashmir the separatists participated in the elections. Sajjad Lone, Kashmir's senior separatist leader, who has opposed Indian rule in the disputed Himalayan region for decades, offered himself as a candidate at Baramullah constituency. His resounding defeat has perhaps exposed the lack of public support to the separatists more than all the propaganda by the government.
In Bihar, where all previous elections witnessed violence, intimidation and murders, unusually not a single incident was reported. Even in Maoist affected regions, despite their call to boycott and threats of cutting fingers found marked with voting ink did not deter the people. In remote jungles of Central India voting was greater than fifty percent.
Clearly then the current national elections in India have been a success in setting high standards in management, organization, transparency and fair selection of people's representatives. This by itself is a remarkable triumph of the largest democratic participation in history. It will not be wrong to say that the electoral process is well established in the country. Now, if only the chosen representatives understand that people have voted for governance rather than caste, religion or ethnic identity, the country will not only be the largest but also the best democracy in the world.