Democracy in action

Published : Apr 10, 2009 00:00 IST

If any action by polling officials even remotely seems to help one particular candidate over another, it results in a barrage of angry letters and demonstrations. Here, polling officials in Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka check voting machines before taking them to the booths, during the May 2008 Assembly elections.-R. ESWARRAJ

If any action by polling officials even remotely seems to help one particular candidate over another, it results in a barrage of angry letters and demonstrations. Here, polling officials in Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka check voting machines before taking them to the booths, during the May 2008 Assembly elections.-R. ESWARRAJ

Not so long ago I voted in the State elections in Delhi. I was doing so after a very long time, and for the first time in the city-state of Delhi. I went to the polling booth with my mint-fresh election card and was pleasantly surprised at the smoothness with which the process was completed. Someone looked at my card, called out my name, another person ticked off my name in a list and I was asked to vote, using the electronic voting machine. I did so and walked out. I t took all of two or three minutes.

True, there were only a few voters at the time, but even if there had been a large crowd as there was in the polling booth adjacent to the one I was asked to go to the process was smooth enough to keep the line moving. And there was no tension or impatience or anything other than a relatively calm atmosphere.

Some decades ago I had voted in an entirely different place. While the process there, too, was relatively smooth, there was some confusion among some voters faced with a yard-long voting paper; many found the large number of symbols bewildering, and then had trouble folding the paper in the prescribed manner. (It had to be folded lengthwise, as many of us would recall, so that the ink from the rubber stamp on a symbol did not get on to another symbol but on the empty space opposite the candidates symbol and name.)

Security in those days meant one constable or home guard with a lathi, who sat stolidly in one corner. Those were the days of booth-capturing, when goons from one party burst into the polling booth and stuffed the ballot boxes with votes for their candidates, and rigging, which is much the same thing, except that the means employed are a little more devious. Back then, it was possible to remove the ink used to mark ones finger even though it was supposed to be indelible. The trick was to put cold cream or something similar on the finger and the indelible ink applied on it could be easily removed using some special chemical that was readily available.

But, as ways of getting round the voting procedure became more sophisticated, so did the voting system itself; voter identification cards and voting machines make the mere removal of the ink a less effective way of dodging the system. It is still possible to remove the ink, but then one needs the card, which has a unique hologram and cannot be duplicated.

The real change has been, of course, the security system. Booths no longer have a somnolent home guard sprawled on a chair outside there are a sizable number of armed securitymen. It is sad that our basic democratic process should need this dimension, but the times demand it. Consider the difference today in trying to enter a five-star hotel. This security presence has made it virtually impossible for a booth to be captured, and in the unlikely event of that happening, a re-poll is held in that booth, with tighter security.

Not many people give a thought to the enormous effort that goes into the holding of this gigantic event. It is not just about the Election Commission, though that is where the major decisions and policies are made. Nor is it only about the offices of the chief electoral officers of each State, where, no doubt, crucially important work is done and innumerable problems to do with polling personnel, their movement, damaged voting machines and complaints about electoral lists and so on have to be resolved. But down in the offices of the Returning Officers District Magistrates and Subdivisional Officers there are thousands of issues that have to be dealt with.

Getting persons to do polling duty is a major headache for Returning Officers. They have the power to require any citizen to do polling duty, but the people they use as a matter of course staff from their offices and other district-level offices, primary school teachers and others are either falling sick, or are needed for emergency work of some kind. If the Returning Officers do manage to get the required number, it is, frankly, a little short of being a miracle. Then there are the other issues their transport, places to stay overnight if the polling station is in a remote location and their security units that need to be worked out.

To make matters worse, all the work has to be done under the suspicious and intent scrutiny of agents of candidates. Any suspected action that even remotely seems to help one candidate over another results in a barrage of angry letters, demonstrations and other forms of protest.

Adding to all this are problems of terrain and climate. Polling stations have to be established in the remote fastnesses of Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, in the arid desert regions of Rajasthan and in the Naxalite-affected regions of Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh. Once the voting is over, the sealed machines have to be brought back so that the counting can be done on the appointed day.

Counting sounds relatively simple compared with the establishment of the polling stations and the logistics of getting there and back. But the locational advantage is offset by the fact that everything, literally everything, that happens in the counting centres, is under the scrutiny of representatives of candidates. This becomes a nerve-wracking exercise in a close contest.

True, elections are held elsewhere in the world and hardly anyone talks about the administrative effort they take. But nowhere are they conducted on such a gigantic scale, on the appointed days (with a few unfortunate exceptions), and results declared on the appointed day.

And then, the democratic governance of the country goes on, in such fashion as is possible, or made possible, by the elected members of the Lok Sabha or State Assemblies and their party leaders. The process that brought them to where they can talk power and Ministry formation, or group and regroup, is almost instantly forgotten; the men and women who contributed to make possible the renewal of our democratic polity then return to their offices and regular work.

Nor, indeed, should it be otherwise. The work they do is part of a process that permeates all aspects of our lives, and it is right that they do it and then go back to doing their regular work. However, once the whole process is over, perhaps one could pause for a moment and spare a thought for those thousands of civil servants who make the elections possible; not only the Election Commission and the chief electoral officers, though they deserve the countrys thanks in no small measure, but those who trudge to distant parts of the country, ensure that citizens can vote, and then painstakingly count the millions of votes cast. In their own way each one of them helps keep the democratic fabric of the country whole, and in good order.

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