Election Commission of India: Mala fide or merely incompetent?

The current ECs are twisting the knife in the deeply wounded electoral process. They have taken a weak, inadequate system and murdered its soul.

Published : May 13, 2024 18:16 IST - 23 MINS READ

Voters of the Hakki Pikki tribal community waiting outside a polling station at Sadashivapura village of Shimoga district in Karnataka on May 7.

Voters of the Hakki Pikki tribal community waiting outside a polling station at Sadashivapura village of Shimoga district in Karnataka on May 7. | Photo Credit: IDREES MOHAMMED

As a relatively recent entrant to electoral politics, and with my prior global career in consulting and large corporations, I have often remarked on the many failings in the functional implementation of the Constitution. These views have remained consistent whether I have been in the opposition or in government. Of the many aspects of democracy that need significant improvement, there is none more vital, or more broken, than the election model. In this article, I detail the many facets that were already of concern before these Election Commissioners took office, and then discuss why the working of this Commission marks the lowest point in India’s history as a democratic republic.

The existential feature of a functional democracy is the proper conduct of elections. In the Constituent Assembly debates, there was even a proposal to consider the purity and independence of elections as a Fundamental Right. Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Chairman of the Drafting Committee, writes that the Committee on Fundamental Rights “made a report that it should be recognised that the independence of the elections and the avoidance of any interference by the executive in the elections to the Legislature should be regarded as a fundamental right”. While recognising the fundamental importance of independent elections, the Drafting Committee finally decided to “put it in a separate part containing Articles 289, 290 and so on”. The occurrence of free and fair elections, in a schedule designated by the Constitution, is what separates a democracy from a pseudo-democratic great-leader dictatorship.

What are free and fair elections?

What does it mean, in practical terms, to run a free and fair election? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be ensured by the Election Commission? Here are some essential prerequisites, in my view:

Accuracy: The conduct of elections must be 100 per cent accurate in enfranchising those who are constitutionally eligible and it must be 100 per cent accurate in preventing those who are not eligible from exercising their franchise.

Awareness: All citizens should have full information about each step in the voting process. They should be able to exercise their vote without any confusion or paucity of information. “Where should I go, what ID must I carry, who will authorise me, what is my right?” The answers to these questions must be universally known.

Non-partisan environment: The election process and the media ecosystem should be neutral such that neither is anybody’s content suppressed nor is anybody able to get away with untruths, let alone Nazi-level propaganda.

Reliability: The process should be transparent enough that multiple people can validate that it took place according to the rules and also validate that nothing untoward or illegal took place (such as bogus votes being cast, etc.).

Also Read | Election Commission’s rant against Kharge breaks many standards

Equality of Access: The system should not discriminate between candidates based on the size of their party or whether they run as an independent. There should be no bar for any average citizen to fight an election.

This not an exhaustive list. In total, the most desirable outcome would involve absolute integrity of polling, uncompromised security of devices, reliability of the counting and polling processes, and devices that deliver a result consistent with the intent expressed by the voters. Such an outcome would inspire confidence that everyone has had a fair and equal opportunity to be a voter, that the party holding executive power has not had undue influence on or gains from the process, and that the system has delivered a result that truly reflects the will of the voters.

A voter gets his finger inked at Bardhaman, West Bengal, in the third phase.

A voter gets his finger inked at Bardhaman, West Bengal, in the third phase. | Photo Credit: Swapan Mahapatra

Those lauding India’s elections as “a festival of democracy” are understandably enthralled by the sheer scale of the exercise: there is universal franchise for everyone above 18, there is a polling booth for roughly every 1,000 people, the voter lists are updated multiple times a year (compared with the census conducted only once every 10 years, and not even that since 2011), there is a high frequency of voter validation using local government officials, and periodic efforts are made to enrol the newly eligible in the voter list. With roughly 960 million eligible voters and over 1.2 million polling booths, running a general election requires a few million booth officers, booth agents, observers, and security personnel, nearly all of whom are pressed into temporary service, in roles completely unrelated to their regular roles.

In previous avatars, Election Commissions enjoyed a level of respect in people’s minds, and arguably a level of compliance and adherence (fastidiously and willingly) by State and Union governments that was more even than the courts. There was an aura of impartiality, buttressed by headline-grabbing interventions on occasion, which allowed people to sustain their faith in the system. A politician with a mass following like Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena founder, was once disqualified by an Election Commission for six years for his speeches.

The Election Commission today remains an understaffed paper tiger.Although the electoral exercise requires millions of people, the Election Commission of India (ECI) runs on a skeleton staff of fewer than 500 full-time employees. This small group is supposed to project authority, manage the system, and ensure compliance with all the rules. The ECI’s functioning leaves a great deal to be desired. Having gained prominence during the Emergency, its stature and respect peaked in the 1990s but has fallen steadily since. In the past 10 years, its functioning and impartiality have been profoundly degraded.

A granular analysis of the current election model shows that the system is structurally unsound. Over 99 per cent of the people who work in an election are conscripted from government or quasi-govt jobs and national PSUs, including nationalised banks. These workers are not ideally suited for this additional duty. The level of training and functional support provided to them is grossly inadequate by any professional standard. As an extreme example, reports have come in from Madhya Pradesh (Dainik Bhaskar) alleging that 20 government employees, including gardeners and drivers, were designated as Polling Officers. One of them, educated up to the fourth standard, said he could only barely write his name. With no disrespect to the workers themselves, such slipshod distribution of tasks and perfunctory training and support shows a callous disregard for the process.

How accurate are electoral rolls (voter lists)?

Data and news reports suggest that there are many problems with the list of eligible voters, which are meant to be updated by the ECI but are in fact managed by the local bodies in most cases. In addition to errors of inclusion or repetition, there are also the more grievous errors of omission or deletion. While there is no such thing as perfect accuracy, the principle ought to be that unjustified omission is a far greater sin than unwarranted inclusion or repetition, much like the preference for not punishing an innocent person as opposed to letting a guilty person go unpunished, which is the basis of all humane judicial systems. It is better to not deny a citizen of the right to vote than to not detect two entries for one voter, one in their hometown and one where they reside (a common occurrence, although increasingly less so).

Officials carrying EVMs and other polling material across a bamboo bridge to reach polling booths at Hajo Tapabori Chor in Kamrup, Assam.

Officials carrying EVMs and other polling material across a bamboo bridge to reach polling booths at Hajo Tapabori Chor in Kamrup, Assam. | Photo Credit: Anuwar Hazarika

Mass omissions have often been dictated by mala fide intentions and ulterior motives and rarely due to incompetence. In the second phase of this election held on April 26, Muslim voters in Mathura reportedly found that their names had been deleted from the electoral rolls. There were no such complaints in Hindu-majority areas.

Likewise, in Gujarat, more than 700 fishermen, all belonging to the Muslim community, whose homes were demolished last year, found their names deleted from the electoral rolls.

In Tamil Nadu, urban constituencies used to see much higher polling percentages than rural ones. The conventional wisdom was that greater participation reflected higher education levels and increased awareness. Today, digital penetration and the spread of TV is near universal in Tamil Nadu, and the reverse has come true. Urban polling percentages lag rural ones by a significant amount. For example, the largely rural Dharmapuri constituency recorded slightly more than 80 per cent polling while multiple parts of Chennai just breached the 50 per cent mark. The common explanation is that this is driven by greater voter apathy in urban areas.

My experience over a few elections, where I oversaw State-wide processes while heading the DMK’s IT Wing, is that rural voter lists are more accurate than urban ones, with the latter inflated by many “incorrect” entries. Discrepancies with ground reality (voter migrated, voter died) are harder to sustain in rural areas because the sense of community is strong and there is a greater awareness of one’s neighbourhood. Increased levels of anonymity, social isolation, and mobility in urban areas lead to extra entries in the voter list in most cases, with almost no one in the system incentivised to remove names from the list. Without multiple voting (largely prevented by inking) or voting under a false identity (largely prevented by multi-step ID validation), inaccurately large voter lists directly result in lower polling percentages.

What compounds this problem is that it is not in the culture for citizens to use their voter ID as diligently or frequently as their Aadhaar card or driving licence; no one really checks if their voter ID is still valid, and the government does not invest enough in educating the voting populace.

Based on the five elections I worked on, the voter lists are off by up to 10 per cent in the rural areas and by up to 15 per cent or more in urban areas. There has been no from-the-scratch census-equivalent voter registration drive in decades. The fact that there is an annual collapsing and consequent renumbering (of serial numbers) of the lists means that people’s serial numbers in their booth list change constantly.

The National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP), launched by the ECI in 2015 with the objective of “bringing a totally error-free and authenticated electoral roll”, has been plagued with several problems. The decision to link the EPIC Number with the Aadhaar card was stayed by the Supreme Court in August 2015. Fears that such a linkage would be used to disenfranchise voters from marginalised communities cannot be dismissed lightly. Critics of the scheme suggested that the ECI was pressured into doing this not as an “end in itself, but as a preparatory step to pave the way for other ambitions of the government of the day such as simultaneous elections or one-nation-one-election”. A radical purification of the electoral rolls cannot happen merely through an Aadhaar-based linkage, especially in a nation where there are tens of thousands of fake Aadhaar entries, including an Aadhaar card issued for Lord Hanuman.

In constituencies that become “special” (high voltage campaigns, prestige issue byelections), we regularly see gross errors in voter lists. In the 2017 second byelection for R.K. Nagar (former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s last constituency), after the first byelection was countermanded following bribery charges, the Tamil Nadu Chief Electoral Officer Rajesh Lakhoni announced that more than 30,000 duplicate entries, dead voters, and bogus names had been removed. Yet, digitising and checking for duplicates identified over 1,200 more instances of voter ID repetitions in the same constituency, which Lakhoni subsequently removed.

Polling day and secure storage of EVMs

While voters are often chastised for waiting until polling day to realise that their names are missing, the government, despite rapid advances in technology, does not send voters any message or notification about their polling booth. Local bodies, which oversee the door-to-door distribution of booth slips, are able to do a half-hearted exercise at best. In fact, the larger political parties do a great service by setting up desks on polling day near the booths to help people prove their eligibility.

Elderly voters arrive at a polling station on a rainy day in Barama, Baksa district, Assam, on May 7.

Elderly voters arrive at a polling station on a rainy day in Barama, Baksa district, Assam, on May 7. | Photo Credit: Pitamber Newar

Under the current system, every candidate is allowed to have one main and one substitute agent at every booth to ensure that due process is followed, and the booth is not “captured” by anyone. These agents ensure that there is only one match on the list with the person voting, and that no voter is either denied a vote or coerced to vote for a particular candidate/party (as happened in Manipur this election and even the selectively blind ECI was forced to call for repolling).

One really needs a minimum of 3,000 booth agents to effectively manage polling day, and candidates without a party structure to back them may not be able to identify so many volunteers, let alone train them. So, it is not a level playing field and the odds of an independent candidate winning a Lok Sabha seat remain dismal (Data suggest that 99 per cent of Independents lost their deposits in the last election). I bring up this point to show that pre-polling processes like testing and validating EVMs, ensuring that nomination papers are in order, cross-referencing the various forms (Form 10, Form 17, Form 20)—are all relatively new procedures for both the EC’s temporary workers and party volunteers.

The process familiarity that can be reasonably expected from well-trained, long-term officers is visibly absent at every booth. The most important form that provides information about the day of polling is Form 17, which declares an account of the votes recorded. This form is vital because it contains comprehensive information of what happened on polling day (total registered voters, total votes recorded in the EVM, whether this tallies, and so on). As a crucial data point, Form 17 gives polling-station-wise breakdown of the number of votes. Form 17 can later be tallied against Form 20 (counted votes), and discrepancies would alert us to undeniable rigging.

People stand in queue to collect their voter slip before casting their vote inside a polling station during the third phase of the general election in Ahmedabad, India, May 7, 2024. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

People stand in queue to collect their voter slip before casting their vote inside a polling station during the third phase of the general election in Ahmedabad, India, May 7, 2024. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi | Photo Credit: ADNAN ABIDI

Today, we are watching a farce unfold: four weeks after the first phase of polling, the ECI has not officially released the final polling figures. Its website and app do not show data on the number of voters in each constituency. A report in The Hindu Business Line said that “there is no data available on the EC website about how many voters are registered in a parliamentary constituency. Significantly, the EC website does not reveal the exact number of voters who cast their vote in the two phases, seat-wise.”

In the last general election, there was a mismatch between votes polled and votes counted in 373 constituencies, but the ECI’s response to The Quint report was to simply delete the data from its website.

In addition to all this, the integrity and process around EVMs is still suspect, compounded by the ECI’s reluctance to reveal who manufactures the EVM components, what is the source code, and so on. Investigating EVMs is like opening a can of worms: the issue of tampering, their storage in strongrooms being compromised, instances of EVMs being lost/replaced, faulty EVMs that record two votes for the ruling party where only one vote has been polled, and the refusal to tally VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail) receipts with EVMs are some of the issues.

Counting day

The excitement and commotion on counting day is immense—what secures the election for a political party is ensuring that its counting agents are well prepared and adequately trained. Counting follows a different logic than polling, and only well-equipped counting agents can perform their roles effectively. In Tamil Nadu, counting happens at 14 tables simultaneously, with a “Head Table” for each MLA constituency, where the results from the 14 tables are tallied, totalled, and posted on a common board in the room. The number of rounds of such counting is determined by the number of booths in the constituency. For example, my constituency of Madurai Central has 239 booths, and hence requires (239/14 = 17 full rounds of 14 EVMs/booths, and a partial 18th round of 1 booth alone).

Election officials on their way to polling booths on the eve of the third phase of election, in Sangli, Maharashtra, on May 6.

Election officials on their way to polling booths on the eve of the third phase of election, in Sangli, Maharashtra, on May 6. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the case of parliamentary elections, the results from each of the six MLA constituencies are aggregated to declare the final vote tallies for the constituency by candidate. Each candidate is allowed to send one agent per table (the ECI prescribes an upper limit of 14 tables in any counting hall), one agent at the table of the returning officer, and, in the case of parliamentary elections, one more agent at the table where the postal votes are counted. For agents to function adequately, they must have the exact information in Form 17 related to each booth and its corresponding EVMs—including the identification number of the EVM, the total votes cast, etc. It is the candidate’s task to provide its counting agents with all this data to ensure manipulation-free and error-free counting.

The votes (EVM and postal) secured by each candidate, which are reported by the Returning Officer on counting day, are aggregated and declared in “Form 20” which is the official result of the election process.

The ECI’s decision to stop publishing Form 17 data (votes polled) is a despicable, unconscionable, and unforgivable assault on the very notion of fair elections. Without universal agreement of the polled numbers in each EVM (identified by its unique serial number), there is no basis on which to ensure that the votes counted match the votes cast on the day of polling. It is now up to each candidate to have their own disciplined and diligent teams to collect Form 17 (Copy C) from each booth (Copy known as 17C), then tally and redistribute by the 14-count ascendancy that each counting agent will encounter. Only then can the counting agent ensure that the right EVM (matching serial number) has resulted in a total of counted votes that equals the total votes actually cast at that booth and EVM on the day of polling.

Smaller parties and independent candidates are again at a disadvantage, given the scale and complexity required to check for accuracy and then protest in the case of any discrepancy. Again, the potential for the party holding executive power to manipulate the counting process is very high.

In addition to these, there is one more avenue for smaller-scale manipulation.

Postal votes/ manipulation: In closely fought contests where the margin of victory is slim, manipulation of results is often effected through the counting of postal votes. Just as the nation saw in the recent Chandigarh mayoral election, there have been other instances of candidates wrongfully elected via the manipulation of postal votes. In one of the most egregious instances, the current BJP Union Minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama won the Dholka MLA seat against Ashwin Rathod of the Congress by a slender margin of 327 votes after 429 postal votes were invalidated by Returning Officer Dhaval Jani, who had previously worked as an officer under Chudasama when he was Revenue Minister.

The ECI has therefore mandated that the postal ballot papers be counted first, and that the EVM counting begin half an hour after the counting of postal votes begins. However, unless the counting agents of one or more candidates insist on this sequence, it is not followed in many cases. Sometimes, the authorities refuse to do so despite the ECI’s ruling.

There is another structural lacuna: Once the Returning Officer at the counting centre issues the Certificate of Election (Form 22) to the successful candidate, the election can only be challenged in court, which can take years, and hence become infructuous. Instances of seats being captured by issuing the certificate to a ruling party candidate, despite losing during the counting of votes, show how results can be manipulated even at the last second.

Election petitions: What happens to election petitions filed in court? Section 86(6) and 86(7) of The Representation of the People Act implores the High Court to conduct the trial of an election petition every day until its conclusion (wherever practically possible), and mandates that the trial be concluded in six months. However, election petitions are often not given adequate attention and given the judiciary’s lack of will and resources, several petitions end up becoming infructuous.

Fixing the electoral apparatus: The ECI in its present form is abysmally incompetent, unacceptably inefficient, and extremely partisan. The electoral process was already weak, and has been significantly degraded by the partisan frenzy of the current Election Commissioners. The staggering incompetence has resulted in an election that drags over two and a half months in the middle of an unprecedented heatwave. With such a track record, the ECI is being tasked with the regime’s idea of One Nation One Election. How much more time/money/effort must go into making this process quasi-functional and robust enough to inspire confidence?

Some of these problems can be easily fixed were the ECI to invest in better technology, commit itself to accuracy, switch to 100 per cent real-time data reporting instead of random sampling, expand its skeletal workforce and train them adequately, and start the process of data correlation from scratch.

  • The existential feature of a functional democracy is the proper conduct of elections. In the Constituent Assembly debates, there was even a proposal to consider the purity and independence of elections as a Fundamental Right.
  • With 960 million eligible voters and over 1.2 million polling booths, running a general election requires a few million booth officers, booth agents, observers, and security personnel. The Election Commission is understaffed, with fewer than 500 full-time employees.
  • In previous avatars, Election Commissions enjoyed a level of respect in people’s minds, and arguably a level of compliance and adherence by State and Union governments. There was an aura of impartiality, which allowed people to sustain their faith in the system. 

Eighty years ago, while envisioning what the staff apparatus of the Election Commission should be, Dr Ambedkar said, “Then the question was whether the Electoral Commission should have the authority to have an independent staff of its own to carry on the work which has been entrusted to it. It was felt that to allow the Election Commission to have an independent machinery to carry on all the work of the preparation of the electoral roll, the revision of the roll, the conduct of the elections and so on would be really duplicating the machinery and creating unnecessary administrative expense which could be easily avoided for the simple reason, as I have stated, that the work of the Electoral Commission may be at times heavy and at other it may have no work. Therefore we have provided in clause (5) that it should be open for the Commission to borrow from the provincial Governments such clerical and ministerial agency as may be necessary for the purposes of carrying out the functions with which the Commission has been entrusted. When the work is over, that ministerial staff will return to the provincial Government. During the time that it is working under the Electoral Commission no doubt administratively it would be responsible to the Commission and not to the Executive Government.” (emphasis added)

Dr Ambedkar’s concerns about additional expenditure and the duplication of administrative machinery was in tune with the limitations of a new nation. In the first general election, the average number of voters in a parliamentary constituency was around four lakh; now it is upwards of 15 lakh. More than one million booths cater to the 969 million voters. Also, elections now happen on a three-tier level (Parliament, State Assemblies, local bodies), they happen around the year, and they require enormous human resources.

Complaints mechanism and a partisan ECI: Parties often complain of ECI bias at every stage—monitoring political advertisements and spending, acting against complaints, allotting symbols, etc. I faced this first-hand when running State-wide advertising campaigns when the DMK was in the opposition. Recently, the EC banned the AAP’s official campaign song on the pretext that it showed the “ruling party and its agencies in poor light”. If this were a criteria, does it not amount to a muzzling of criticism and accountability, the life-breath of democracy? On the other hand, the ECI turned a blind eye when the BJP ran explicit dog-whistling campaigns targeting the Muslim community or when it spread canards about the Congress manifesto.

When complaints were made to the ECI about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign speech in Rajasthan that created the false impression that people’s hard-earned money and women’s mangalsutras would be taken away in the name of wealth redistribution and given to “infiltrators” and “those who have more children”, the ECI chose to send a notice not to Modi but to the BJP chief J.P. Nadda.

If we go back to the one significant instance of masjid-mandir politics that catapulted the BJP from a mere two seats in the Lok Sabha to 84 seats, we will be haunted by the spectre of Ayodhya. The same Ayodhya is centre-stage now. Prime Minister Modi visited the Ram temple on the eve of the third phase—revealing both his desperation and his disregard for the Model Code of Conduct. It is worth recalling that the Liberhan Ayodhya Commission of Inquiry recommended to the ECI that “attempts to misuse religious sentiments, or to appeal to voters through the mode of their piety, whether by holding thinly disguised electoral rallies in places of worship, or posing as political supplications to God must result in swift action and possible disqualifications”.

Also Read | ECI under a cloud for going soft on PM Modi’s communal utterances

We have today the exact inverse—we have a ruling party running for its third term on the plank of the Ram temple, we have regular hate speech/communal rabble-rousing by the Prime Minister himself, and we have an Election Commission that is a silent spectator.

I repeat my statements over the years: we have not invested enough attention, importance, money, or time into the electoral process that forms the bedrock of a functional democracy. The notion of “One Nation One Election” is not only a constitutional travesty, given the current asynchronous terms of various State, local body, and Union governments, and without any guarantee that a government will last its full term, but it is also a quixotic fantasy, given the gross inadequacies in the current election model as detailed above.

Political party workers sit by the side of the road to help voters find their polling booths, in Ahmedabad on May 7.

Political party workers sit by the side of the road to help voters find their polling booths, in Ahmedabad on May 7. | Photo Credit: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

The knife in the deep wound is the behaviour of the three current Election Commissioners. They have taken a weak, inadequate system and murdered its very soul and reason for existence with their shameless bias. They have brazenly allowed the explicit targeting of Muslims (Ajmer April, 6; Nawada April 7; Pilibhit April 9; Banswara April 29), turned a blind eye to the sops announced by the Centre after the Model Code of Conduct came into force, and remained unperturbed by the hijack of the democratic process in Surat, Indore, and Gandhinagar. A month after polling started, the ECI has not provided the final voting turnout figures. The final voting percentages, released 11 days after polling, show an inflation of approximately 5.5 per cent for the first phase and 5.74 per cent for the second phase—these are deeply suspicious figures. That is why I say that the functioning of this ECI marks the absolute nadir of India’s hard-won democracy. It is an evil curse on the nation and on every citizen.

Palanivel Thiaga Rajan is Minister for Information Technology and Digital Services of Tamil Nadu.

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