The Indian general elections — the largest electoral exercise in the world symbolising the individual and collective will of a diverse people and a multi-cultural nation to tread united on the democratic path — is set to begin on April 7. With multi-phased polls becoming the norm now, the Election Commission (EC) offered no surprises in staggering the elections over nine days in a 35-day period ending on May 12. The logistics of the operations — involving an 814 million-strong electorate, 9.3 lakh polling stations, 1.15 lakh central paramilitary personnel, over 13 lakh electronic voting machines (EVM), besides lakhs of poll personnel — is proof of the daunting nature of the challenges before the EC.
Weathering many odds, the EC’s exemplary functioning since the first general elections in 1951-52, and the periodic reforms to root out malpractices, has given it a formidable reputation for fairness. The scale and the efficiency of this entirely bureaucracy-driven exercise is proof of what India can achieve in improving its governance and human development record if the neta-babu axis so chooses to act. The EC’s symptomatic treatment of various ills — central paramilitary security to prevent booth capturing, voter cards to prevent impersonation, and EVMs to prevent ballot stuffing — dramatically changed the conduct of elections. The enforcement of the model code of conduct from Wednesday also signals the end to a deluge of last-minute sops and legislations the UPA government churned out in the hope of appealing to sections of voters.
One area where the EC’s interventions have largely failed is the curbing of money-power and the flow of unaccounted money into electioneering. This is the final frontier of the EC’s battle to hold free and fair elections. Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath admitted as much when he confessed that the EC would take special measures to curb attempts, by financial means, to influence voters. Already, the EC requires candidates to maintain expenditure registers which are to be signed by the expenditure observer, every three days, after comparing the invoices with current market rates. But the large quantity of illicit liquor and currency captured in raids by EC flying squads are never accounted for. In the absence of political will to reform their funding processes, most evident in political parties’ objections to coming under the Right to Information Act, the EC has been hesitant to crack the whip.
Notwithstanding the EC’s decision to hike the expenditure ceiling to Rs70 lakh for Lok Sabha constituencies, BJP leader Gopinath Munde’s confession and subsequent retraction — to having spent Rs8 crore in the 2009 elections — reveals the scale of the problem. Would the elimination of spending limits ensure that funding and spending becomes transparent? Not necessarily, as political funding has a larger link to crony capitalism. The best the EC can, and must, do in this scenario is investigate and prosecute those under-reporting income and expenses. But its responsiveness to other public concerns is commendable.
The notification of paid news as an electoral offence, the attempts to improve voter turnout, giving citizens another opportunity for voter registration at this belated stage, and paper receipts to allay fears of EVM tampering indicate an agency in tune with the times. It is also a time for the political class to step up — mind their tongue, campaign ethically, and spend judiciously. The task of restoring the legitimacy of the political class will rest heavily on the Lok Sabha that shapes up from this election.