Book Review: An Undocumented Wonder

Sunday, 11 May 2014 - 7:00am IST | Agency: dna

Former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi's account of the birth and journey of India's Election Commission is of critical importance, says Pratik Ghosh

Book: An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Election
Author: SY Quraishi
Publishing House: Rainlight by Rupa, 2014
Cost: Rs795, 434 pages

On Monday, the curtain comes down on the general elections to the 16th Lok Sabha. Four days later the results of a sharply polarised, bitterly-fought battle will be made public — leaving a trail of celebrations and heartbreaks. The challenges of handling a nine-phase poll, involving 814 million voters spread over vast and varied landscapes, can be daunting even for the most efficient organisation in the world. Not for the Election Commission of India though that has turned a complex, mammoth electoral exercise into a hallmark of democratic engagement. Thanks to a fiercely independent and incorruptible Election Commission, every five years or so, the world's most populous democracy takes part in a jamboree to choose its leaders without so much as sparing a thought on all that goes into making the elections a spectacular success.

Even then the prevailing ignorance about the country's electoral operations cannot be allowed to fester. Which is precisely why former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi's book An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election assumes critical importance. Quraishi's account of the birth and journey of the Election Commission, its untiring efforts to battle corruption and foster wider inclusive participation — often resorting to technology and sweeping measures to attain the objectives — is fascinating. The author, who served as election commissioner and chief election commissioner between 2006 and 2012, has been instrumental in introducing innovative measures to broaden and deepen the electorate's engagement with the ballot. In the mould of the great institution he once helmed, Quraishi comes across as modest and self-effacing in his prose, never shying away from giving credit to his colleagues and predecessors. He tips his hat to the sprawling human network of the Commission that reaches out to the last man in the most remote region in the country. Such has been the poll panel's magic that Quraishi himself notes with considerable amazement how a corrupt bureaucratic machinery is transformed almost overnight into a committed, no-nonsense, upright workforce in its zeal to ensure free and fair elections.

The Commission's achievements are endless — rendered possible because of its dynamic and meticulous nature. It's impossible to fathom the degree of planning — down to the last, minutest detail — that the three-member panel undertakes. From procuring materials to their timely transportation, the Election Commission does it all with clockwork precision. It has made optimum use of technology to streamline its systems and processes. Online electronic voter database, satellite imagery and geographical information systems, video-tracking candidates, electronic voting machines and web-based monitoring systems have only helped the institution become increasingly efficient and transparent.

Its other salient contribution has been in the sphere of voter education and participation. India is a melting pot of cultures, religions and sensibilities, divided along caste and class lines, battling poverty and ignorance. To surmount the many fault lines requires a radical change in mindset. Another formidable challenge was to inspire a growing population of youth to become stakeholders in the democratic processes. The day Quraishi took over as the chief election commissioner on July 30, 2010, he set out to address both these issues with a slew of measures. The Commission set up a Voters' Education and Awareness division. Declaring January 25 as National Voters' Day augmented the thrust as did innovative and colourful activities that the Commission undertook in collaboration with educational institutes, youth organisations, civil society and the media. Low voter turnout continues to be a problem but the situation has vastly improved with women and urban voters showing unprecedented keenness to exercise their franchise.

Though Quraishi doesn't spell it out in so many words, the Election Commission's real problem is the politician whose reluctance to play by the rule book is all too well known. Hence the enforcement of the model code of conduct and the necessity to keep a close watch on a candidate's electoral expenses. The Election Commission is determined to weed out the twin scourges of money and muscle power, but has met with limited success. In its struggle to ensure a level-playing field, the media has been a trusted ally, acting as its eyes and ears. But then the emergence of 'paid news' has given reasonable grounds for suspicion. Quraishi tempers praise with criticism, raising the thorny issue to remind the media how such compromises undermine its stature and credibility as a watchdog of democracy.

The last chapter, titled Reflection and Afterthoughts, raises topical issues and proffers a few suggestions to improve the quality of democracy. Particularly heartwarming are the author's views on 'compulsory voting' — he argues in favour of millions of daily wage earner who cannot forego their day's wage 'in exchange for the luxury of voting'. He also questions the practicality of punishing a voter if he fails to show up at the polling booth.

An Undocumented Wonder… is far from being a boring read. Quraishi's breezy style, peppered with an occasional dose of humour, helps the reader negotiate effortlessly through an architecture of facts and figures, which is a must for a book of this nature and scope. It's lot more than a mere textbook for those who seek to decode the magic of Indian elections.

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