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The Election Commission of India has emerged, over the last 63 years as one of our most respected institutions. Over these six decades, this Constitutional body has developed new skills almost with each general election, and latterly even with each election to the State Assemblies, to remain not static but evolutionary; constantly striving to widen the inclusive and egalitarian framework, aiming thus for the widening of the voting processes.
India is a caste-based society with deeply rooted social hierarchies. However, universal adult franchise proved to be a game-changer, for each vote carries equal value. Democratic elections have enabled the traditionally marginalized groups to take the democratic route towards empowerment. Indeed, the process of democratization of castes has turned out to be the most significant social development of 20th century India. Both political parties and individual candidates have had to accept a policy of reconciliation rather than confrontation. The constitutional provision for reserving seats for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes has given them a minimum guarantee of participation in governance. From the first election itself, this worked wonders in levelling the playing field, which in turn lead India to witness the growth of major leaders from the erstwhile marginalized sections occupying key elected positions in many States.
By virtue of holding its first national election in 1951 – 52, India achieved the status of the world's largest liberal democracy. Dr.Ambedkar and the other founding fathers believed universal suffrage was a necessary pre-condition, although India's literacy level was an abysmal 16 % in 1947. The success of that election, which was also its first marker of equality, belied the many sceptics who felt that the electoral exercise was doomed to failure.
A natural extension of this basic approach was the inclusion of universal adult franchise with the raison d'etre that man or woman, rich or poor, upper caste or lower, irrespective of creed or religion, the voter was brought through the electoral roll onto a common platform. The age – old inequalities were, at one stroke, sought to be eliminated or at least substantially diminished by conferring political equality. This amongst other measures reflected a very enlightened, mature and significantly bold vision, particularly if we recall that in many countries different groups, especially women, had to struggle long and hard to obtain franchise.
Anticipating that the caste based social hierarchy would play a restricting role in ensuring the equality of citizenship rights in the elections, the law makers made specific provisions in law. Accordingly, undue influence at elections is an electoral offence under section 171C of the IPC. Any voluntary interference or attempt at interfering with the free exercise of any electoral right constitutes the crime of undue influence at an election. Section 123 (2) of the Representation of Peoples Act 1951 defines any direct or indirect interference with the free exercise of any electoral right as a corrupt practice. Special provisions were also made to safeguard the interests of the voters from the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes. Thus, forcing or intimidating a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Tribe not to vote or to vote (for) a particular candidate or to vote in a manner other than that provided by law is an offence under Section (3) (1) (v) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.
Notwithstanding these legal provisions almost every election after Independence witnessed violence, threats and intimidation to SC voters. Reporting on the Indian elections a journalist of Associated Press was to write:
"Armies formed by local politicians have intimidated villages during every election in the underdeveloped farmland of northern India... on election day; hired thugs prevent many voters from reaching polling stations. Other voters arrive to find their ballots have already been cast." Arthur Max, "Private Armies," Associated Press, April 12 1996)
The conduct of elections in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, has always been one of the Commission's biggest challenges, given its size and social complexities. While preparing for the 2007 Assembly Elections, the Commission used technology and its now computerized rolls to find out which areas (townships, villages and tolas) had not voted for long periods in previous elections. This gave us many valuable insights on how to approach this mammoth problem.
Our preparation began with a bye -election to the Aurai assembly bye-election in December 2005. During the campaign period voters from the weaker sections complained to the Election Observer that in the past they had difficulties in accessing the polling stations due to intimidation by local musclemen. The Observer brought this to the notice of then Deputy Election Commissioner in the ECI in charge of Uttar Pradesh, R Balakrishnan. On the forenoon of the poll day, the Observer noticed that in one particular polling station voters from the weaker sections had not come to vote. The Observer went to the particular village and saw a few hundred voters being prevented by a handful of armed men from casting their votes. Taking the help of the local police, the voters were enabled to proceed to polling station. This was the Observer's report:
"Towards end of the polling, I visited a few villages where there had been complaints of stopping of Dalit voters. There appears to be some truth in such allegations. I met several Dalit voters who showed me their I cards issued by the Election Commission and complained they had been unable to vote because the dominant castes had warned them not to proceed to the polling booths. There was no intimidation in or near the polling booths as such.... No immediate remedy in this regard suggests itself, since it is not possible for the electoral officers or police to patrol the villages so intensively as to provide security/escort to every voter from his doorstep to the polling booth. The same situation would be faced even if a re-poll were to be ordered in such areas."
DEC R Balakrishnan submitted the details of these incidents to the Commission. Clearly the traditional approach of safeguarding only the 100 metre periphery around a polling station would no longer suffice. Here then lay the genesis of a search for an institutional method to identify the areas likely to be affected by such threats as also to track the people who are likely to create such disturbances. This meant stepping out of the traditional crease, to address the problem at source. A detailed concept paper emerged which the Commission endorsed. From this was borne a new methodology which we named "Vulnerability Mapping", borrowing the term from Disaster Management.
Now we aimed at the identification of habitats and segments of voters vulnerable to intimidation in the past, with a view to taking advance measures to prevent the commission of such offences. This method brought a new focus to ensure clear accountability, give visibility to institutional intervention and send a no-nonsense message about the seriousness of elections. It proved to be an effective confidence building measure.
In the process of mapping vulnerability the election managers during the mammoth 2007 U.P elections identified as many as 27831 polling stations (out of 1,10,763 polling stations spread over 403 constituencies) as "vulnerable" on the basis of past incidents and current feedback. As many as 15000 habitats were identified as especially vulnerable. More than one lakh people were identified as potential trouble makers. Proper accountability was created within the security system to monitor them, and various preventive measures were initiated under preventive section of law.
Typically, we found that a 'vulnerable' voter had to walk through areas of intimidation to cast a vote. We then created auxiliary polling stations and parked them near the vulnerable pockets themselves. Now there was no need to walk through 'hostile' territory. Several hundred new auxiliary polling stations proved to be a game-changer which is why I termed the 2007 U.P. election as a "watershed" election!
The impact was clearly visible on poll day. The ECI observers did a marvellous job. They tracked every vulnerable location. As the electoral administration had identified the potential trouble makers by name and forewarned them there against violence, there was no threat or intimidation on the poll day. The U.P elections, for the first time in years, were violence-free. Vidya Subramaniam writing in Frontline on May 19 2007 summed this up thus:
"In Lucknow, where I start my journey, local journalists breathlessly talk about an election that has not been this free and fair in decades. They eulogise the Election Commission of India for making this possible and speak of Dalits in the remotest villages trooping out to cast their votes - in many cases for the first time since Independence. 'This is a miracle', they say"
Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India