Voter's Participation September 11, 2012

"VOTER'S PARTICIPATION"
PRESENTATION BY
THE FORMER CHIEF ELECTION COMMISSIONER OF INDIA
AT ST. ANTHONY'S COLLEGE
SHILLONG, (11.09.2012)

ELECTIONS 2009: THE INDIAN EXPERIENCE

The 2009 General Elections – its challenges and opportunities

The Election Commission of India is an institution vested with the responsibilities of superintendence, direction and control of conduct of elections. It presently consists of a CEC and two ECs. The ECs and the CEC are appointed by the President on the advice of Council of Ministers. It has a small secretariat consisting of about 300 staff in all headed by three Deputy Election Commissioners who are seconded civil servants. It is represented in the States by a small office under Chief Electoral Officer (CEO). The Commission is a lean organisation and has limited staff on a permanent basis. However, during elections State officials are seconded to the Commission for conduct of elections on a temporary basis. The Commission conducts the elections to the President, Vice- President, the Upper House and the Lower House of the Parliament. The Commission derives its authority from the Commission. It also registers and recognizes political parties and adjudicates on the disqualification of elected members. In discharge of its functions, it is independent of the executive. Though appointed by the government, once appointed, the CEC cannot be removed without a cumbersome impeachment procedure. Nor can the terms of the office be modified to the disadvantage of the incumbent. We intend to shortly take up with the Government that the terms of removal of the two Election Commissioners are made the same as those of the Chief Election Commissioner, and we hope Parliament will agree. The Commission is free and indeed is the sole authority to decide the timings of the elections. Once the election process is set in motion by the Commission, the courts cannot interfere with the conduct of elections. Any dispute resolution, till such time as the elections are over, lies with the Commission. Once the elections are over, the Higher courts have the power to entertain election petitions filed by aggrieved parties (candidates) against each other. Normally the Commission or its officials cannot be made party in these cases. Over the years, it has earned the credibility and respect of all stakeholders through impartial, free and fair conduct of parliamentary and state assembly elections conducted on time successively over the years. Even the courts, in various pronouncements have upheld the actions initiated by the Commission to cleanse the electoral system of violence, bribery and other undue attempts to influence the voters and the polls. All the votes cast are counted ion one single day. In this case, the 16th May, 2009, three days after the last phase of polling on 13th May, 2009, the results were announced the same day, and the formal presentation to the President of India of the results was made a the promised time of 06:30 p.m. on 18th May. The General Elections, 2009 to the Lower House of Parliament, recently concluded, has been hailed as a thoroughly successful election both by victor and vanquished. I want to say a little about the preparation of the electoral roll for this election. The fidelity of electoral rolls is the fundamental prerequisite for a free and fair election. An imperfect roll provides scope for both complaint and impersonation and has been a major challenge facing all Election Commissions. In India (ECI), the electoral rolls are revised every year but aware that the General Elections 2009 were due, the Commission started a special drive to cleanse the electoral roll (for elections 2009) beginning in 2008 itself. In early 2008, the ECI convened a conference of all its Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs) each representing each State and Union Territory of the country – all handpicked officers chosen for their integrity. In the conference it was inter alia decided to hold the 2009 elections on photo-electoral rolls and all the CEOs were assigned the task to prepare and publish photo- electoral rolls for 2008 so that even in case of early elections, the 2009 elections could be held on photo-rolls. Thus began a major preparatory exercise of cleansing the rolls of the names of the dead voters, duplicate names as well as those persons why may have shifted from one address to another, while enlisting all new eligible voters and inserting photographs against voter details. A sample page is enclosed as an annexure. For each polling station of upto 1500 voters, specific officers were identified called Booth Level Officers (BLOs). Their task was to verify the rolls by door to door visits and to include the left out but eligible electors and at the same time to remove the dead or shifted voters names. All political parties" cooperation was also enlisted in the process and they were asked to appoint a representative for each polling station called Booth Level Agents (BLAs) to interact with BLOs to further ensure that all eligible persons were enlisted, and that names were not deleted wrongfully or inadvertently; some, especially the larger parties were able to, some were not. This intensive work was repeated in 2009 January-February and the rolls further improved. On the completion of this massive exercise, 7.6 million new voters were registered and about 1.2 million names were deleted. The overall registered voters? number rose to 716 million (from 671 million in 2004). The presence of the photograph on the electoral rolls itself facilitated the identity of voters at polling stations and helped preclude impersonation. As a result of the special campaign, for the first time, India witnessed a national general election with photo-electoral rolls. 585 million (about 82%) of the Indian electorate had his/her image on the photo-roll itself. Because of a largely error free roll, there were hardly any complaints on the grounds of missing or wrong inclusions. This contributed to the 2009 elections being hailed with a sense of general satisfaction. Rationalization of polling stations Closely related to the roll issue is the access issue. Polling stations were set up sometime in past and there were only incremental changes in them over the years. Since their locations could have an important bearing on the voting behaviour/pattern, in the same CEOs conference of February, 2008, the Commission decided to address the access (to the polling station) issue. This became more necessary in rural areas rather than urban. The ECI directed that instead of the convention of providing one polling station for 800-1200 voters (in some cases it led to clubbing of multiple villages at one polling station), at least one polling station should be provided for every village howsoever small that village be. If it was big village then every hamlet was provided with a polling station of its own. It increased the logistical workload and necessitated more resources, but it led to a major confidence boost amongst the vulnerable sections or society (in India, vulnerable sections/communities flock together in one hamlet and live together). If a voter has to vote in his own village, he/she feels more confident and is less intimated. As a result of this rationalization exercise, about 130,000 polling stations were added in one single year to the existing 700,000 polling stations and led to significant enhancement in voter"s convenience. Presently we have about 830,000 polling stations. Every village has its own polling station. This rationalization exercise was taken quite seriously and in the remote desert areas of Rajasthan, the ECI even innovated with "Mobile Polling Stations" whereby instead of the voter trekking long distance in the sparsely populated desert and the heat, the polling stations were able to reach their doors! (We also had polling stations for one, two, and three voters!). This was the second major contributing factor in making the 2009 elections most successful one.

MODEL CODE OF CONDUCT (MCC)

A word must be said about our somewhat unique MCC that comes into play the moment an election is announced. This has evolved through a consultation process amongst the political parties. Inter-alia, one of the provisions is : "No party or candidate shall indulge in any activity which may aggravate existing difference or create communal hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic." It further prescribes that there shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes. Mosques, Churches, Temples or other places of worship shall not be used as forum for election propaganda.

The Commission enforced the MCC even handedly and asserted itself towards enforcement of the MCC by issuing necessary instructions and enforced them strictly. Commission issued show-cause notices, censured, and initiated legal action under the provisions of the Penal Code and other provisions of Electoral Laws. Commission even transferred derelict civil and police officers and in extreme cases even punished them. Overall, strict discipline was enforced in observance of the existing rules and statutes during the run up to the elections which helped in the most peaceful conduct of elections on the poll day.

Quick Grievance Redressal

Election Commission followed a micro management approach. For the purpose, it deployed Observers and Micro-observers. Observers are senior and tested officers of the premier civil services of India, chosen by the ECI to be its eyes and ears during the elections. They were deployed to specific constituencies where they were stationed for a minimum of 3 weeks and reported on the 'happenings' directly to the Commission and to our Control Room. The Commission took action and gave further directions based on their reports. Each Observer was provided with a list of junior government officers of the federal government, available within his/her allotted constituency for being handpicked and deployed as Micro-Observer. The micro-observers are static observers on the poll day inside the polling stations and ensure the sanctity of poll process inside the polling stations. They report to the Observers and are trained and oriented by the Observers for the purpose. The institution of Micro-Observers is a new innovation arising out of closer supervision of the poll process inside a polling station and to provide the Observers with extended reach on the poll day. For the General Election, 2009, 2000+ Observers and 150,000 Micro-observers were deployed, directly reporting to the Commission and to our control room 24 X 7 from the field. They were positioned from the last date of nomination till the polls were over (and then again on the counting day). They inquired into and reported on the complaints to the Commission directly. They were the eyes, ears and ambassadors of the Commission in the field. Commission could effectively handle the pre-poll as well as the poll day complaints very quickly and in a reliable manner which enhanced people's belief in the Commission. A national control room was set up, state level control rooms were set up and through a communication network, each polling booth, either through a landline or a mobile cell or wireless set or a satellite phone and in extreme cases even through a 'runner' as networked to keep the Commission apprised, on a real time basis, of the election related events at polling stations. Each and any complaint was attended to without loss of time which enhanced the credibility and effectiveness of the Commission. Besides the Communication network, all this led to commendation from all corners on the way the Commission went about handling the task in a dispassionate professional manner.

An Ally in the Media

With strict and even handed enforcement of the MCC, the media and the general public also started taking up the MCC violation issues and became on ally of the Commission in highlighting the deviations (by contestants and the political parties) and in creating awareness about the action being taken by the Commission. This created an unprecedented support among the public for the Commission in its endeavour to deliver a free and fair poll. The opposition parties, media and general voters widely appreciated the tough measures taken by the Commission.

Partnership with Civil Societies

The Commission stretched itself to rope in and forge partnership with reputed civil societies at every stage for conduct of a free and fair poll. In roll preparation and creating voter awareness NGOs (One billion votes campaign) as well as Corporate Houses (Tata Tea) and Service Providers (Googles.com) joined hands to assist the ECI?s efforts. National Election Watch, Association for Democratic Rights and other state level Civil societies were motivated and facilitated by the Commission to support and disseminate Commission"s works. Non-official election volunteers were allowed to assist voters. All these were new initiatives which created a new synergy for election delivery mechanism.

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