The year was 2006. There was a palpable excitement in the MBA classroom of National University of Singapore where I was pursuing a Masters Degree. I asked couple of classmates what the excitement was all about. They said they were going to vote for the first time in the General Election. I was taken aback a bit. I knew voting was compulsory in Singapore and we were about 40 years of age. So why would they vote for the first time? Their reply was, “Yes it is compulsory. But then voting would be possible only when there is a contest. Most of the times PAP (the ruling party in Singapore since its independence) won unopposed. This is the first time in our constituency opposition has fielded a candidate and we will have a chance to vote.”
Compare this with the contrast of Indian Elections. In 17 General Elections since 1951-52, so far only 23 candidates have been elected unopposed and the last was in 1989. In the last twenty years no one has won unopposed in a General Election. Even the first Prime Minister and one of the country’s tallest leader, Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru had to face the ballot.
For me, our greatest achievement since Independence is holding of free and fair elections since the first general elections were conducted. Yes there are issues in our democracy. But that does not in anyway reduce the credibility of our elections. In whole of Asia, I think only Japan and India have true democracies. Compare India with all our neighbours and one can understand how fortunate we are that our constitution is respected, the elections are held every five years by an independent constitutional body and no one can usurp it (even if you had a brutal majority like the one Mr. Rajiv Gandhi had in 1984).
The constitution gave universal suffrage from the first election in 1951-52. Women in Switzerland got the right to vote in Federal Election only in 1971 nineteen years after women in India voted in general elections.
I am coming to the exception of free and fair elections every five years rule. Mrs. Gandhi in 1975 declared emergency and postponed the election. When the elections were held eventually in 1977, the people of India unequivocally voted her out of power, saying you can’t snatch our democratic rights. She came back to power in 1980 which reminds me of the next story. We were in Class XII at that time. After the results were declared, Prem Kumar my classmate commented, “I don’t think I will ever get a chance to vote.” The assumption was Mrs. Gandhi would never allow another election to happen in India. Just a reminder to our young readers, the voting age in India at that time was 21 and we were 17.
He was wrong. We have not missed a deadline for conducting the election since the emergency.
There are some mind boggling spectacles involving humanity in the world. Millions of Chinese people going home during Chinese New Year. The Kumbh Mela in India. The 2019 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in UP saw 150 million people attending the festival to take a holy dip. All these exercises are logistical nightmares for any Government. How do you accommodate 150 million people in a city of 7 or 8 million or how could you arrange travel facilities when suddenly millions of people want to take a ride home in a train or a plane or a bus.
But arranging logistics for the above is like having a birthday party of your daughter for ten people compared to conducting the general elections in India. It is an exercise in gargantuan proportions. 900 Millions (90 crore) people who are eligible to vote (more than 10% of world’s population) will come to exercise their franchise. There are geographical and topographical challenges. The voting booths are spread across impenetrable jungles, deserts, snow clad mountains, desert plains, mangrove swamps and mega cities with teeming millions of people.
I am quoting from an article in New York Times, ‘What it takes to pull of India’s gargantuan election.’
Democracy doesn’t get much simpler than one person, one vote. But what happens when that one person is a hermit living alone in a jungle temple surrounded by lions, leopards and cobras, miles from the nearest town?
In India, the election comes to him.
Bharatdas Darshandas, the lone inhabitant and caretaker of a Hindu temple deep in the Gir Forest, has become a symbol of India’s herculean effort to ensure that the votes of every one of its 900 million eligible voters is counted. A team of five election workers will trek to Mr. Darshandas’s temple and set up a polling station solely for his use.
“It is an honor, it really is,” Mr. Darshandas told reporters following a general election in 2009. “It proves how India values its democracy.”
Consider this: A polling booth is placed in a village for 48 people in Spiti Valley. What’s so special about this? Well the village in the Himalayas is situated at a height of 15,256 feet above the mean sea level (at this height you will not be able to breathe easily). Mr. S Y Quraishi the former Election Commissioner of India says, “there are place where we can reach the people only with helicopters and there are places none of the modern transport can get into. And the polling officers trek three days to get there.”
When we were young, we used to hook ourselves to radios and transistors with all the crackling sound to listen to the results of the elections and it would take almost two days to get the final results. Now we have the EVM (Electronic Voting Machines) and the internet. So the counting is faster and the results are updated live. But the challenges for conducting the elections still remain the same. Instead of Ballot Boxes, now EVMs are transported on Elephants and camels, on Boats and Helicopters and on horsebacks and donkeys. Just hold your breath. There are 1.2 million election officials and couple of millions from security agencies who ensure a free and free election in the dust and heat of the county. In most parts of the country the temperature is more than 400C when the elections are held. The polling officials and the security personnel who guard the voting machines survive harshest weather conditions to make sure the polling process go smoothly.
EVM in itself is a marvel of technology. India is the only large democracy which uses Machines instead of Ballot Papers. But it has its own benefits. For over a period of 20 years the elections in some parts of the country almost became a farce with booth capturing and rigging. Two things put a full stop to it. Mr. Seshan who became the chief election commissioner (a constitutional post) reestablished the authority of the Institution and then introduction of EVM. Now they have added one more step to assure the voters that they can actually confirm that the vote is given to the candidate to whom they have voted. VVPAT or Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail ensures this and detects malpractices.
I was very happy to see when saw this news. In the first 8000 VVPATs which tallied the number of votes on the EVM not even a single mistake or discrepancy was found. I believe India can definitely share this technology with other democracies of the world. We should be really proud of this.
I am not saying everything is perfect in our electoral system. Millions of eligible voters could not find their names in the electoral lists. A panellist in the in the election results show commented that she could not see her name in the list in the polling booth. The irony is the road where the booth was situated is named after her father and they have been living there for generations.
But then there are problems in all polls. Remember the Florida election fiasco which many believe costed Mr. Gore the chance to become president of USA. One of the most technologically advanced countries goofed up the poll in such a big way, we would never know if the history of the world would have been different had Gore became The President.
The democratic process in India has reiterated our great leaders’ belief in a free and fair society where anyone with an ambition and hard work can reach the highest office of the country thus becoming a leader for one seventh of world’s population. Let us celebrate this with a toast. Vive le démocratie – Long Live Our DEMOCRACY.
Please follow the link for the New York Times Article.
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