A thriving and vibrant electoral democracy has been India’s distinct and durable identity, long before it asserted itself as an economic nuclear or IT major. Founded by a great constitution, it has been nurtured by the Legislature, Judiciary, political parties, the media and the people of India, with some contribution from the Election Commission of India (ECI).
Despite doubts from some quarters, founders of modern India adopted universal adult suffrage, thus reposing faith in the wisdom of the common Indian to elect his/her representative to the seat of power. The Constitution created an independent ECI to carry the democracy forward.
The statistics of today’s Indian elections maybe mind boggling, even if you look at them purely as numbers. There are around 780 million electors on the electoral roll, as of January 1 2014, which is more than the population of both North and South American continents taken together or all the countries of Europe or Africa combined. The last elections to the Indian Parliament held in 2009 can be described as the biggest humanly managed event in the world. It involved 714 million voters, 835 thousand polling stations, 1.18 million electronic voting machines and 11 million personnel.
A major challenge in our elections is how to ensure a level playing field. The party in power has all the resources of the State at its command. Hence, there is a need to create a code of conduct to be followed by all stakeholders, particularly the party in power.
The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) is a unique compact evolved with the consensus of political parties in India and is a singular significant contribution by them to the cause of democracy. The ECI enforces it right from the day it announces any election schedule. MCC has no statutory backing and many of its provisions are not legally enforceable. Yet the compliance is immense. Public opinion is the moral sanction for its enforcement.
Elections have to be not only free and fair, but also socially just and participatory. During our 60-year democracy, the voter turnout has remained around 55-60 percent. It is a good figure compared to the declining voter interest in several societies, but it is definitely far less than what we aspire to achieve.
To make democracy truly inclusive, we have come up with a Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) wing that rolls out comprehensive community outreach and multi-media campaigns to bring all citizens, especially the youth, into electoral participation.
In every election now, we carry out a scientific survey of Knowledge, Attitude, Behaviour and Practices (KABP) of voters before launching voter awareness programmes in partnership with civil society and the media. This initiative has borne impressive dividends in terms of higher registration and turnout in recent State elections.
In 2011, the ECI declared January 25 as the National Voters Day (NVD) with the avowed purpose of increasing voter enrolment, especially the newly eligible ones. More than 5.2 million newly eligible and registered youth were given their voter cards at more than half a million polling stations on the first NVD, besides adding up about 17 million new voters to the roll. This has been billed as the largest exercise of empowerment of the youth on a single day, anywhere in the world. This is now an annual feature in India. Many other countries have shown interest to adopt the model.
The ECI has started off the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management (IIDEM) that serves as a training and resource centre in election issues and democratic processes for both national and international participants. In just two years of its existence, the institute has imparted training to election managers of over forty Afro-Asian and Commonwealth countries, besides thousands of domestic ones. The institute is now assisting representative democracy worldwide.
We have come to a stage in India where holding a free and fair election is no longer news. In fact, not holding one would be an exception. This is India’s promise to its own people and to the world. There shall be no let off in the fight against money or power in elections. The other goal is to have every eligible Indian on our electoral rolls and every Indian voter to vote in the elections.
The ECI has a simple vision: ‘Elections that are completely free of crime and abuse of money, based on a perfect electoral roll and with full participation of voters.’ Our progress on this road is sure and steady.
The author is the former chief election commissioner of India