It seems that nobody dies in Karnataka,” said N. Gopalaswami, chief election commissioner of India. He had just completed a review of the electoral rolls—more commonly known as the voters’ list—in the state. There were an astonishing number of errors, leading the Election Commission (EC) to declare that it would be deleting about 3.4 million entries, and adding close to 1 million entries over the coming weeks, in an operation that looks more like a disaster relief activity than a maintenance job on a database—30,000 government servants deployed at every polling booth, 12 senior-level officers at the state level, and four observers from other states.
That’s a huge number. It’s a wake-up call to recognize that this isn’t about bureaucratic neglect or administrative incompetence: it’s a fundamental, long-running legacy problem. If we don’t address this the right way, we run the risk of putting Band-Aids when the patient has a deep disease. The disaster relief has to give way to systemic change.
In the short run, the EC’s public announcement has added another dimension to an already twisted political situation in the state. Karnataka is being run under President’s rule, after the tattered coalition government of the Janata Dal (S)-Bharatiya Janata Party collapsed under the weight of its own bickering. Right now, all political parties are working furiously to estimate their share of the vote in a possible May election, which might even get postponed. Every caste and community configuration is being parsed —split into sub-castes and further subdivided so that electoral victory can be squeezed out.
This is acceptable electoral politics in India. But the troubling part is the role that weak voter rolls will play in determining political fortunes. Elections these days hinge on small slivers of margins, which make the difference between fading into oblivion and being victorious.
In the last Karnataka assembly elections, 170 of the 224 candidates—more than 75% —won without getting a clear majority of the votes: 116 seats were won with a margin of victory of less than 10,000 votes, and 70 with less than 5,000 votes. If half these votes—less than 2,500—had swung the other way, the results would have been different. Suddenly, about 3.5 million false entries assume importance—an average of 15,000 names wrong in each constituency.
All political parties know about these errors. There is a flourishing market for these fake names. It’s easier to “buy” a fake voter than a real voter, whose loyalty is unpredictable, price is market-driven, and presence at the polling booth on election day is uncertain.
Unfortunately, little can be done to solve this problem, certainly not in the next few months. Contrary to public imagination, the EC of India is a tiny organization with a handful of senior commissioners and support staff. They depend heavily on state and local government machinery to manage their work. This army of grassroots soldiers is a motley group of teachers and revenue officers who double up for this unsavoury job. R. Ramaseshan, chief electoral officer of Karnataka, said: “There is a human dimension here that we overlook. Women teachers often have to visit voters’ houses late at night, after work hours, when they are sure that people will be at home.”
And the ripple effects in the major clean-up operation in Karnataka are massive: Close to 10,000 teachers are double-timing during exam days, busy toiling away knocking on people’s doors, getting turned away like unwanted salespeople. The instructions are for teachers to do this after school hours, with no additional income. Boy, the price that democracy extracts!
The lessons go beyond Karnataka. The EC is a credible constitutional authority, and it needs support. It needs financial and human resources to undertake fundamental business process re-engineering in every aspect of electoral roll management: Change the entire database of the voters list from a patchwork of Excel sheets that resides only with vendors to a secure, single location; revamp roll management to a continuous process rather than a stop-and-start activity; create transparency and opportunities for citizens to engage at a neighbourhood level; use geographic information systems to map polling station boundaries; pay for booth-level officers from the government and post-office machinery; and beef up the technical and administrative support for the EC.
All this will cost no more than Rs1,000 crore a year nationally. It’s peanuts compared with the hundreds of thousands of crores of public resources that corrupt politicians gain access to with the seal of legitimacy that elections confer upon them, dead voters included.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org