As results pour in, celebrate the election process and make it more robust

This column appears on the morning a lot of us will be glued to our television screens, watching the results of elections to the Assemblies of  the States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. There is no doubt that these are a very important set of results. They will tell us which way the political wind is blowing, and will provide early indication of the mood of the nation as we head towards national elections in 2019.

There is no point speculating about the results here. The ballots are in. The exit polls are done. The pundits have said their bit. The voice of the people will speak. What is to be marveled at is the entire exercise that, despite rising political tensions, has been conducted by and large peacefully. We must celebrate this as the face of Indian democracy at its best. Over the years, as the Election Commission of India (ECI) has acquired teeth, thanks to some early efforts by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) T N Seshan (from1990-1996) and followed up over the years under various CECs, the process of elections is expected to be robust.

What is to be marveled at is the entire exercise that, despite rising political tensions, has been conducted by and large peacefully. We must celebrate this as the face of Indian democracy at its best. Over the years, as the Election Commission of India (ECI) has acquired teeth, thanks to some early efforts by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) T N Seshan. 

There was a time soon after T N Seshan stepped down when it was believed by some that as the disciplinarian CEC, he had taken the life and joy and colour out of an Indian election. Rallies and loudspeakers had to stop at 10 p.m.; there was strict monitoring of poll expenses. Sitting in a television studio during a live broadcast, his successor Dr. M S Gill said as much to this writer before we went live on air. But over time, as the political temperatures increased, violations got more intense and the system as a whole came under strain, it was the strict adherence to strict protocols that has stood the system in good stead. That has helped the process so that whichever party wins, it is the election process that always emerges triumphant.

This time, there have been signs that all is not well. There is increased skepticism about the EVMs. Given the bitterness and the shrill rhetoric, trust is at a new low. The reports of an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) found lying on a road in the Shahabad area of Kishanganj Assembly Constituency in Baran district of Rajasthan may appear to be a stray incident but they reveal all the chinks in the election armour. Two election commission officials have been suspended for negligence. The EVM was quickly handed to the police and the unit was sent to the district headquarters for safekeeping in a strong room, “as per protocol.”

Security of EVMs

This is ironic – finding protocol in a system where all protocol has been breached at a very sensitive time in a very important election and when the stakes are very high. One wonders how it is possible for an EVM to be transported without the requisite security. A district election officer has said that this was a ballot unit that was not actually used in the election but was one of those on standby. The explanation would raise more doubts than settle worries. EVMs, used or standby, cannot be floating around in ordinary vehicles with little or no security. They just cannot fall off the vehicle, like some extra heap of cargo on an overloaded truck plying the highways. Sure, there is a difference between those used at the ballots and the machines kept on standby. But if the standby ones are doing the rounds of the highways of Rajasthan, who is to say where they’ll end up, how they’ll be dressed up, tampered, and presented in a whole new avataar. If the two officials who were suspended are EC officials, what about the police who are supposed to accompany every unit and escort the EVMs till these are deposited in a strong room? Incidentally, the Election Commission holds the district collectors and superintendents of police personally responsible for security of all strong rooms. There appears to be no official statement form the ECI on the incident.

One wonders how it is possible for an EVM to be transported without the requisite security. A district election officer has said that this was a ballot unit that was not actually used in the election but was one of those on standby. The explanation would raise more doubts than settle worries. EVMs, used or standby, cannot be floating around in ordinary vehicles with little or no security.

The report comes after the incidents reported from Madhya Pradesh, where elections officials were allegedly found drunk and in possession of EVMs and Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) at a private hotel owned by a political party functionary. The Chief Election Officer of Madhya Pradesh has issued a statement that confirms that four officials “wrongly took the machines to hotel, against the instructions of the Election Commission.” Two have been suspended and an inquiry has been initiated against all four election officials.

Recounting these incidents on the day of the results is not to undermine the process of elections or to raise undue doubts but to state that the robustness of the process is a vital ingredient to receiving the results as the true voice of the people. As it is, there has been skepticism in some quarters on the limits of EVM technology and a persistent set of views that the system can be digitally tampered. Yet, we can’t go back to the paper votes, as the ECI has argued. The paper trail that is a part of the VVPAT remains the only guard and physical proof against any violations.

Building trust in the system

But the problem is only partly with the EVMs. The worries about EVMs are also a reflection about the worries on the independence of the officials running the election – at the top and more so at the grassroots, where the votes are actually cast. Every step taken by the Commission to make this system more robust, more transparent and more verifiable will guard against faith being eroded by charges – some of which are fair but some also added on as a part of political bickering. Yet, all complaints are serious and one cannot take the view, so carelessly put forward by the former CEC O P Rawat that “when they win, they don't give credit to EVMs, but when they lose, they all blame the EVMs.”

How do we achieve a more robust process? First, at the top, a leadership that plays fair, not the manner in which the ECI under Rawat delayed announcing the dates for the Gujarat elections last year, delaying the activation of election time protocols and allowing the BJP government to announce sops for the electorate and thus gain an unfair advantage.

Down the line, there must be summary and exemplary punishment to those who do not carry out orders strictly according to the procedure set out and are found playing with the system. If the officials found at the hotel were dismissed and arrested and prosecuted, that would be a strong warning to every other election worker. These signals need to be sent out when what we are dealing with is the democratic process itself.

Election Commission protocols on how security is maintained after the votes are cast are very clear and clean. A circular to that effect goes into four pages and has seven articles in it, including deployment of security, entry and exit regulations, back-up power systems in case of power failures, 24X7 CCTV recording etc. Further, the process is now also required to be certified on a daily basis by the returning officer.

In Maharashtra, after the devastating earthquake art Killari in Latur, there was a case of one relief worker from the State government who took a T-shirt and wore it himself. The government employee was working non-stop in the field for days, his clothes were wet and dirty and the T-shirt was needed. Yet, when that report reached the then Chief Minister, Sharad Pawar, he issued orders for immediate suspension of the official. That was only to signal that no one shall tamper with or misuse relief material when the people were suffering. Strong signals set the standards for others to follow. They strike fear in the mind of potential violators.

Election Commission protocols on how security is maintained after the votes are cast are very clear and clean. A circular to that effect goes into four pages and has seven articles in it, including deployment of security, entry and exit regulations, back-up power systems in case of power failures, 24X7 CCTV recording etc. Further, the process is now also required to be certified on a daily basis by the returning officer.

The current Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, who took over on Dec. 1, said: “Over a period of time, due to the sheer dedication of so many illustrious CECs, ECs and all those who are working in the Commission as well as those in the field formations have made the Election Commission an iconic institution. The entire democratic world looks up to it and those countries who are kind of transiting towards democracies, for them this Commission is a beacon of hope.” This is something to protect, nurture and make more perfect if we are to continue to rejoice in and remain proud of our electoral processes.

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)