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Why is the election commission effective in India?

Updated May 14, 2014

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A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Monday, May 12, 2014. Millions of Indian voters wrapped up a mammoth national election Monday. — Photo by AP
A woman casts her vote at a polling station in Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Monday, May 12, 2014. Millions of Indian voters wrapped up a mammoth national election Monday. — Photo by AP

Election Commission of India allowed the government to go ahead with the appointment of the country’s new army chief hours after the polling ended in the last phase on May 12. The commission had actually allowed the Ministry of Defence to forward the file to the appointment committee headed by the prime minister two weeks ago but the government sought its explicit permission again to be doubly sure.

Has the commission a role in appointment of the army chief in India? Certainly no, but there is no uncertainty in any mind here that the constitutional body becomes the supreme de facto government of the country as soon as elections are announced.

The commission in India does not only have all the powers that it needs to organise this biggest electoral exercise in the world, it is willing and ready to use it as well. The size of electorate in India is a colossal 810 million, ten times the one in Pakistan and multiplying it with the geographical, linguistic and other diversity factors, the sheer mechanics of the exercise become mind boggling. Yet, the commission comes out victorious from this labyrinth as the participants generally do not contest its impartiality or capacity. The commission has faced some criticism in the present hotly contested elections but that has largely focused on it being not quick in responding to calls for action.

From Pakistan’s point of view where the commission is mistrusted and always deeply embroiled in controversies, the more surprising is the fact that the commissions in both countries enjoy roughly the same constitutional powers. There are however some differences as well.

“The courts can’t intervene in our working in any manner. The constitution guarantees this non-interference that many subsequent court rulings have further reinforced. That gives us the required agility,” said S.Y. Quraishi, the former Chief Election Commissioner of India in an interview with Dawn in New Delhi.

“Then we assume total control over bureaucracy, cutting its links with the political governments completely. We purge the entire state machinery of political bias by ordering transfers and postings following our own assessments of each individual functionary or in response to complaints,” says Mr Quraishi. He adds: “The commission invites every party individually in every area and each of them gives us their lists of suspected, biased functionaries. We act after summary inquires.”

“We also insulate the officials appointed to perform election duties from their political masters. No minister or chief minister is allowed to call them for a meeting. We suspend them even if we come to know that the chief minister has talked to them on phone,” says the former commissioner who belonged to Indian Civil Service.

Quraishi whose book on Indian elections ‘An undocumented wonder’ has been published last month believes that once under the commission, the government functionaries have no option but to behave. “They are our main force but we cannot trust their impartiality and have put in place many safeguards,” says Quraishi elaborating that as a last measure, “we order repolling following the report of our own observers or complaints from candidates of say booth capturing.” The four-day gap between the last polling and result announcement is to facilitate repolling before the final tabulation.

The commission in India does not require army to perform any election duty and in fact keeps it “miles away from the process”. It instead lists police, paramilitary and other armed forces for assistance and once they are assigned they come under the commission’s ‘command’.

Quraishi is all for the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and rubbishes the criticism on this “illiterate-friendly” machine that has replaced paper ballots in India. The machine was first introduced in one state on experimental basis as early as 1984 but it was provided the requisite legal cover only in 1998. It was then put to use in all the state assembly elections before being used for the entire Lok Sabha elections in 2004 for the first time. He believes that EVMs not only save the commission from the hassle of printing paper ballots, it also makes the contentious counting process as easy as one, two, three. “Another matchless advantage is obliteration of votes rejected for being marked erroneously,” says Quraishi. (According to a FAFEN report the number of rejected votes in 2013 elections in Pakistan exceeded the margin of victory on 35 of the 266 contested seats.) The commission in India is also experimenting with introduction of biometric system for voter identification.

‘The money power’ however is the biggest and burgeoning challenge that the commission is faced with. It not only places a legal bar on the candidates to not spend beyond the prescribed limit, it makes them open separate bank accounts dedicated to their campaign expenses. “Then our flying squads videograph the campaign activities and maintain a shadow account of each candidate,” says Quraishi. “The candidates have to submit their expense accounts three times during the 14-day campaign and they are not allowed to report the cost of a cup of tea that they offered to their supporters at rupees two if its market rate is rupees seven.” The commission carries a list of the market prices of all the items that a candidate can possibly use in his/her campaign and has powers of disqualifying them on wrong reporting.

The commission places a ban on the movement of cash, intended to be distributed among voters as bribery. It has raided suspected places, including ambulance vans and coffins in funeral processions, to check violations and confiscated currency worth hundreds of crores of rupees during current elections. The banks are directed to report any ‘extraordinary withdrawal of cash’. The commission also bans movement of liquor that is another favourite item of bribery for voters.

Quraishi believes that the use of money in elections is the fountain head of corruption in governance system and has led efforts to check it and the best they could do is to make “the life miserable for them”.

The commission has stretched itself to the limits. It has very encouraging stories to tell but aren’t all its victories pyrrhic? “The challenge is formidable,” admits Quraishi, adding; “the crime is always ahead and they keep finding ways to get around but rest assured the commission is at it. The best thing about the Indian election body is that it learns quickly, devises new creative solutions and implements them. Every election is better than the previous and the best ever in Indian history.”