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The woman who pulled the poll strings in Gujarat

Sunday, 23 December 2012 - 4:21pm IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: dna

2012 elections saw a record voter turnout in state. And the credit goes to chief electoral officer Anita Karwal. DNA profiles the woman behind the success.

Three days after second phase of polling concluded in Gujarat for the assembly elections of 2012, DNA catches up with chief electoral officer Anita Karwal to figure out why Gujarat set a new record of extremely high voter turnout.

The biggest news from 2012 assembly elections, apart from the third victory for chief minister Narendra Modi, is the smoothest and record-setting election. And not a single case of booth capturing or re-polling because of law and order issue!

The woman who made all the difference is looking forward to holiday more than she had imagined she would. For the past three months, she and her team of lakhs of officers on election duty have been working for over 14 hours daily to ensure free and fair elections in the state.

Their hard work seems to have paid off well as the lady herself points out that besides the highest voter turnout in Gujarat since Independence, this is also the first time that no re-polling will be held because of law and order problem. If one looks at the means adopted to attain this end, a scientific pattern of organising elections in this biggest, vibrant and chaotic democracy emerges.

With the singular stated focus of making the process fair play for all candidates with transparency and security for voters their guiding mantra, the Election Commission of India took on a new role instead of just managing the logistics.

Reaching out to voters

Rather than being just a silent bystander to the society where citizens ignore their duty to vote, this time the national body decided to discharge its duty in spirit of the brief laid out in the Constitution than just the word.

They went into the depths of why voters vote and why they don’t, what influences them the most and sought their feedback on how to effectively communicate their message. Based on that, they devised a detailed plan with targets to reach out especially to those sections of society where turnout was low – urban sections and women.

The new opportunity to tap was first time voters.
The primary task was to manage the colossal records of 3.86 crore voters. An extremely painstaking operation of verifying, re-verifying and again verifying voters’ details was carried out patiently over a period of nearly 18 months before the polling day.

The EC’s Electoral Roll Management System (ERMS), an internet-based software, was more sturdy this time. For the first time, voters could register online for the electoral photo identity card (EPIC) which would be delivered at home within days. 45,579 booth-level officers (BLO) made the first visit to every single voter’s house last year and then followed up with at least three more in case of those who had shifted / died / photo check / name check / enumerating adult members of the house etc.

"By the end of the exercise in August when the final electoral roll was printed, the EC had even registered some first time voters who celebrated their 18th birthday in August! “My BLOs could recognize voters by their first names when they came to the polling booth to vote,” says Karwal.

While the urban voters responded to advertisements and group awareness programmes that had doctors and chartered accountants reaching out to their groups urging them to vote, the biggest challenge was to reach the women in rural areas. It is believed that women in rural areas do as they are directed by the men in their house, so how should the message be designed?

“We took the cultural approach. Street plays and Bhavai were organised in villages to sensitise the rural folk about the importance of casting their vote. In many cases, special Bhavai for women were played out by women keeping in mind women-oriented issues. Self Help Groups also helped us a lot in reaching out to their networks,”Karwal says.

One decision which, Karwal says, made a lot of difference in increasing women turnout was to allow two women to enter the polling booth against one man.So waiting time for women was halved. “It was conceded by the EC that women have many tasks to attend to and they cannot stand in a queue for a very long time. In some cases, men protested, but the poll officers and security personnel carefully explained the rules to them and controlled the situation,” she says, recalling the gratitude calls she got the
following days for this.

Keeping it clean

Looking at the crop of politicians everywhere in the country, the biggest challenge in meeting the ambition of free and fair elections is keeping it clean of money and muscle power. Karwal concedes this election was relatively less dirty. Initiatives like flying squad in the night were a first this time.

Watching cash flows, the requisition to explain candidate expenses, requisition to take permission for every printed material, severe crackdown on abusive or provocative messages — especially anonymous — and most importantly, governing paid news had left a lot of candidates nervous.

“We learnt that print media has the single highest influence on voters’ psyche so it was important to keep that space sanitised. We are expecting the candidates to submit their expenditure details in a month. If we find a mismatch, a candidate can be disqualified. This happened in Uttar Pradesh, after a long process though, but it was the first time that it did,” says the hard-nosed CEO conveying a clear message that she would brook no nonsense.

The firsts

High voter turnout, near perfect law and order situation and less abuse by muscle and money power were the ends achieved for the first time by some experiments by the EC. For the first time in the country, written exams were held for 182 Returning Officers (RO) about their knowledge of the process.

"Thankfully, most of them scored 60%, and some even scored cent percent. They were in fact enthused about it and said they would hold such written tests for their subordinates as well,” she recounts with a hearty laugh. ROs are generally middle-aged.

Class one government officers.
Postal Ballots for government officers on deputation was a first of sorts. “They were so happy…it was a big morale booster for them as well as us,” she says. Voter facilitation centres established at various places in the city was a fresh innovation which is likely to be replicated by the EC nationally now.

“This is the first election where there has not been a single incident of law and order problem. We have not received any complaints of booth capturing. We checked some complaints of bogus voting but it turned out to be cases of confusion rather than mala fide intentions. It takes 15 seconds to cast a vote on an EVM, which means the booth would need to be captured for at least 50 minutes to cast 200 bogus votes from one EVM, otherwise it is considered futile. Now with the kind of security personnel we had in place, was it possible to capture the booth for so long? Our teams would have reached the booth from any part of the constituency in that time,” Karwal asserts.

For the first time, live monitoring of 1,128 booths was done through webcasting using ustream website. Karwal says it was very successful and can be repeated on a larger scale. 

The woman behind the success

Mother of two teenage daughters, Karwal has headed the mammoth exercise with calm and focus. “It hasn’t been easy, there was too much stress. There would be days when I could not talk to my daughters, both studying in different cities. During the polling week, I hadn’t slept even a wink for six days straight,” Karwal admits, rubbing her eyes with a deep sigh.

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