The Election Commission Must Do Much More to Live up to Its Mandate

The integrity of India’s electoral process is at stake and the EC must play its constitutional role as the watchdog of democracy, without fear or favour.

The 2019 general election is nearly upon us, and it could be as eventful as the one in 1977 – that took place in the shadow of the Emergency.

In that year, I was the returning officer – responsible for the conduct of elections – in the Chandigarh parliament constituency. The contest was between a powerful ruling clan and a powerless opposition coalition. The choice was simple: Should India have a police state or a people’s government? The parched millions voted in favour of the latter.

The 2019 election will be held in an atmosphere of existential danger to institutions of democratic governance. Political equations and the choice before the people are similar.

This time there is also another choice to make – should India continue with the inequitable, predatory and crony model of ‘vikas’ or opt for a democratic and equitable model of development?

Without much doubt, the verdict of the people will be similar to that of 1977 if elections comply with the ‘democracy principles’:

  1. Voting public should see and be satisfied that their vote is correctly recorded and counted;
  2. The electoral process is subject to public scrutiny/examinability;
  3. Ordinary citizens should be able to understand and follow the election process without special expert knowledge;
  4. There should be verifiability in the counting of votes and ascertainment of the results in a transparent manner.

But that is a big ‘if’.

In 1977, voting was manual – through paper ballot. In 2019 it will be digital, through electronic voting machines (EVMs). The former, despite its flaws, complied with all the democratic principles. The latter does not, despite claims of EVMs being devices of technological excellence.

In any event, the integrity of India’s electoral process, and its democracy itself, is at stake. It is here the Election Commission (EC) must play its constitutional role as the watchdog of democracy, without fear or favour.

Electronic voting – Adherence to democracy principles

By constitutional mandate, the EC is squarely responsible for ensuring the integrity of India’s elections. It has sent around 50 reform recommendations to the government, asking for rules to be framed or laws to be amended, to decriminalise politics, make party funding transparent, criminalise paid news and to empower the EC to countermand an election in cases of bribery.

These have been pending for years. Despite the pendency of these election reforms, the EC still has the power to implement some decisive measure to ensure electoral integrity. 

In order to ensure some compliance, the Supreme Court gave a judgment on October 8, 2013 in Subramanian Swamy vs Election Commission of India, mandating the use of voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) along with EVMs:

“From the materials placed by both the sides, we are satisfied that the ‘paper trail’ is an indispensable requirement of free and fair elections. The confidence of the voters in the EVMs can be achieved only with the introduction of the “paper trail”. EVMs with VVPAT system ensure the accuracy of the voting system…”

The VVPAT system is imperative for the following reasons:

  1. To impart confidence in citizens that their vote will be recorded and counted accurately.
  2. To allow for a recount.
  3. To provide a backup in cases of votes lost due to malfunction.
  4. To test – through a sizable random selection of machines – that the paper results are the same as the electronic result.

Though the EC has confirmed EVMs with VVPAT for the 2019 election, it has also directed the chief electoral officers in all states and union territories to mandatorily verify VVPAT paper slips in only one randomly-selected polling station in each constituency. This is miniscule, and defeats the very purpose of installing VVPATs in all EVMs.

Despite widespread negative perception of the integrity of EVMs, the EC continues to serenade the machine. Credit: PTI

Needless to say, it is only when the paper slips as verified by the voters are counted that the true purpose behind the introduction of VVPATs is served. Without counting the paper slips in a significant percentage of polling stations in each constituency, and cross-checking it with the electronic count before declaring results, the objectives of verifiability and transparency in the democratic process will remain unrealised.

Despite widespread negative perception of the integrity of EVMs, the EC continues to serenade the machine. This is not a democratic response. The commission should realise that in the public domain, ‘Truth is not the truth, perception is the truth.’

Elections are an exercise in democracy, not a display of technology. The idea is not to abide by statistical nitpicking, but to fix the bar so high that nobody will even entertain the idea of tinkering with the people’s will.

Faultless electoral rolls 

The biometric identity database of Aadhaar is an instrument of surveillance. It has turned out to be a tool for exclusion, not inclusion. Using it to streamline the electoral rolls – the basic database of any democracy – was inviting trouble. This is what happened with the EC’s National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme relying on Aadhaar to check the veracity of voters’ list. What is worse, voters were coerced into linking Aadhaar with voter IDs.

Also read: How Did the EC Link 300 Million Voter IDs to Aadhaar In Just a Few Months?

This has led to large-scale exclusion: Karnataka is one typical case, where allegations came up of minority voters being targeted for exclusion from the electoral rolls. Despite this, and the Supreme Court declaring that Aadhaar need not be linked to bank accounts and mobile phones, the EC has not given up its linking with voter IDs. This is unfair and undemocratic and must cease.

Instead, the EC would do well to launch a campaign to delink the Aadhaar with voter IDs and thereby purify the electoral roll in time for the election.

Tackling the buying and selling of votes

Another serious threat is the rampant corruption and use of money-power to bribe voters. Parties resort to this action in three ways:

  1. Ruling party’s government bribes voters by dishing out freebies using public money,
  2. Parties promise the moon to the voters in their election manifestoes,
  3. Distributing cash and gifts, or serving food and liquor to voters during the election, or just before.

This has now developed into a sophisticated business model calling for equally sophisticated counter-measures.

On July 5, 2013, the apex court decreed that “Freebies shake the root of free and fair elections to a large degree”. It directed the EC to frame guidelines for election manifestos.

The EC’s model code of conduct (MCC) 2014, directs political parties and candidates to “avoid making … promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on the voters.”

Rule 16A of the MCC empowers the EC to either suspend or withdraw the recognition of the political party that violates this code – after giving it a reasonable opportunity to show its reasons. Despite many blatant violations since, the EC has rarely exercised this power.

Representative image. Credit: PTI

The 2016 assembly election in Tamil Nadu was an outstanding example. Exercising its plenary powers, the EC postponed elections in two constituencies due to widespread bribing of voters. It issued a strongly-worded notice to the ruling party, the AIADMK, about the lavish promises of freebies in its election manifesto. However, nothing else happened.

Just two days before the Tamil Nadu poll, cash worth Rs 570 crores was seized near Coimbatore. The matter was hushed up, without proper investigation. Such inaction by the EC has encouraged perpetrators to become more brazen.

The EC must exercise its power to countermand elections and derecognise parties that blatantly violate electoral laws and the MCC. This will have a good psychological impact.

Also read: How Political Parties Could Use State Data Hubs To Sway Voters

De-criminalising elections

In March 2003, the Supreme Court directed all candidates to file affidavits with the returning officers (ROs) stating their criminal antecedents, assets and liabilities. This was meant to curtail criminal and money-power in elections. In practice, this has been a farce.

ROs have no time to verify the affidavits. They need to be able to scrutinise affidavits and facts so that criminals and mafia elements can be stopped at the threshold.

Making ‘EC observers’ an effective instrument 

Recent elections have experienced an ‘observers overkill’, which has failed to improve electoral integrity and invited derisive remarks from the public. Many ‘observers’ suffer the handicap of their inability to communicate in the local language, to listen to public grievances or to take prompt remedial action.

One measure could be to co-opt ‘citizens’ observers’ to perform the same role. They would not have statutory powers, but could still function as the eyes and ears of the EC, providing direct inputs from the field on the violations of the MCC and distribution of cash and gifts.

Citizens’ observers may be appointed in consultation with leading civil society groups. This could make elections a participatory process with the largest and real stakeholders, the public.

“We, the people” have given the mandate of ensuring free and fair elections to the EC. For that purpose, we have bestowed upon it plenipotentiary and legal powers. The EC should realise that people are its masters, not the government or political parties. It must function as a catalyst for greater electoral integrity, so that democracy and its institutions can be restored to their true glory.

M.G. Devasahayam is a former civil servant and convener, Forum for Electoral Integrity.