Much remains to be done in order to make the world’s largest democracy also the world’s greatest

By Dr SY Quraishi
Former Chief Election Commissioner of India; Executive Board Member, Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University

This paper elaborates upon three of the several challenges faced by the most powerful electoral management body in the world - the Election Commission of India (ECI), and how it proceeded to solve them.

As the guardian of world’s largest elections, it has faced a diverse range of challenges over the past seven decades in delivering free, fair and transparent elections at the state and national level. In light of the massive constitutional mandate that the Constitution of India bestows upon it, it has stood the test of time, emerging as among the most trustworthy constitutional body in the country.

An Electoral Wonder

In a move termed as nothing short of a silent revolution, India chose democracy, becoming a “sovereign, democratic republic” in 1950. Universal Adult Franchise was granted to us in one stroke. This was a big deal, considering the case of US, which took 144 years, and the UK, which took 100 years to confer political equality on women. But at that time when India became a republic and a democracy, people thought this was a grave adventure, with a country with 84 percent illiteracy! How will they cope with the responsibility of democracy?

Needless to say, it was not a foolhardy adventure. While many postcolonial countries fell to dictatorships, the largest and the most complex among them not only survived, but thrived.  We are a bustling democracy, an economic powerhouse, IT major, a space giant and a major nuclear power.

From 360 million at independence, the electorate is now 900 million! In 2019, a million polling stations, 600 million votes, 2.33 million ballot units, 1.63 million control units and 1.74 million Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) were managed by the Election Commission of India (ECI). Airplanes, helicopters, boats, tractors, motorcycles, bullock carts, mules, elephants and camels are hired to transport individuals and materials on a tight schedule. The Commission and its 12 million polling staff (larger than the population of 160 countries!) proved its mettle yet again by executing such a historic management exercise with precision.

The Guardian of Indian Elections

The ECI was born a day before the Indian Republic. The Constitution framers were very particular about the importance of the institution of elections. The kind of power they gave to the Commission, the independence and distance they created between the EC and the Government is a testament to their vision.

Article 324(1) of the Indian Constitution vests in the Commission ‘the superintendence, direction and control of … all elections to Parliament and to the Legislature of every State and of elections to the offices of President and Vice President’. Free and fair elections were considered so important that the Assembly even considered making the independence of elections a Fundamental Right!

The Chief Election Commissioner , once appointed, enjoys security of tenure. S/he is in no way accountable to the government appointing them, and cannot be removed except through impeachment similar to a judge of the Supreme Court. The Ministry of Law and Justice is the nodal ministry, which interacts with EC on budgetary matters, legislative amendments concerning elections, and the framing of rules.

But EC’s power does not imply lack of accountability. Under the Right to Information Act, it is obliged to furnish information to the citizens as a “pubic authority”. It is subjected to periodic audits as well by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).

The right to vote is provided by the Constitution and the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, subject to certain disqualifications.  Article 326 guarantees the right to vote to every citizen above the age of 18. Further, Section 62 of the RPA states that every person who is in the electoral roll of that constituency will be entitled to vote.  This is a nondiscriminatory, voluntary system of voting.

To enable access to franchise and conduct of free and fair elections, the Commission has heralded continuous improvements and innovations over the last seven decades. From separate boxes for each candidate in the first general elections, to paper ballots, to EVMs (now equipped with VVPATs), the Commission has led the way in removing technological skepticism. From introduction of electors’ photo identity cards (EPIC) to check impersonation, to live webcasting of elections, to controlling money power and increasing voter participation through non coercive methods, the Commission has proved its mettle on all fronts.

It is often described as a global guru in the field, and its expertise is coveted by so many that it necessitated the setting up of an international training institution in the field of election management, called the India International Institute for Democracy and Election Management.

The following section shall discuss three main challenges that the ECI has faced in conducting these mind-boggling elections, and how it overcame them with innovation, integrity and perseverance. The fourth and last part shall deal with the need for a proportional representation system for Indian Lok Sabha, a new emerging concern.

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Banner image courtesy of SUMITKUMAR SAHARE via Pixabay


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