Not sure how many of you will agree, but I definitely feel a sense of pride when I hear references to India, despite the warts and all, being the world’s largest democracy, with a voter base that’s at least twice the size of the entire population of the US, the world’s oldest democracy. But that is the big story—what about the backstory on how this gigantic operation works? Like all back-office stories, it remains largely untold.
This is an attempt to bring forth one aspect of this incredible effort through an individual story of an election observer appointed by the Election Commission (EC) to ensure free and fair voting. It was built around a conversation I had with Ashok Lavasa, then director in the department of economic affairs in the ministry of finance, immediately after the general election of 1998, and picked up when I re-established contact with him earlier this year. Lavasa is presently serving as principal secretary (power) in the state government of Haryana.
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Ahead of the 1998 Lok Sabha election, Lavasa, the election observer for the Bayana Lok Sabha constituency in Rajasthan, discovered while perusing the data for the previous elections that one of the villages actually showed no polled vote despite having around 100 voting adults.
Curious, Lavasa decided to journey to the village. Easier said than done, since the village only had a pathway connecting to the road head. He managed to procure a tractor and complete the 3-4km journey from the road head and reached the village by dusk. By then, as is typical of rural India, word had already spread and the village was awaiting the visit of an “official”. In the light provided by a clutch of kerosene lanterns, Lavasa identified himself as an election observer and made it clear that he was not a government representative there to address grievances. He then went on to ask the villagers why they had not voted.
Lavasa recalls that he did not anticipate their response: The villagers had chosen to boycott the poll as a protest against the authorities for repeatedly ignoring their requests for a proper road. According to them, the problem became most acute during the monsoon, when the village was completely cut off, making it impossible to access even medical help or to cremate a body. Hence, the village collectively decided to boycott the poll—or cast a negative vote—and hoped the protest would draw a response.
Technically, they had cast a negative vote, which never got recorded as such. Under the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, a voter who wants to cast a negative vote must inform the returning officer, who will register his/her name and address in an election book, though it will no longer be a secret ballot.
(Ironically, 13 years after the village cast its negative vote, the Supreme Court has taken up public interest litigation which demands that the ballot paper should include an option that rejects all candidates, thereby ensuring the choice remains a secret; the matter was referred to a constitutional bench, as reported in Mint on 23 February.)
Lavasa is not sure if the anecdote had a happy ending and the village was eventually connected by road, but he does recall that the villagers cast their vote in the 1998 general election.
This compelling story about the role of the election observer—appointed by the EC to ensure free and fair conduct of the poll—underlines the gargantuan effort that goes into conducting a general election in India with all its problems of limited or sometimes no infrastructure, violent caste and communal divides, topographical extremities, and so on.
The observers, all serving bureaucrats, are in many ways the unsung sherpas of the poll process. Lavasa’s effort is not unique and is actually part of his job profile as an observer; I am sure there are scores of similarly captivating stories out there.
Even if there is only one voter, the EC has to ensure that a polling booth, along with the paraphernalia of security and infrastructure, is made available. In this general election, already under way, the EC has set up a polling station in Gujarat’s Junagadh district for just one voter, while a polling station in Chhattisgarh will have only two voters. There are also three polling stations in Arunachal Pradesh that will have three voters each.
To get a sense of the scale of operations, check out these vital stats of the 2004 general election:
There were 1,351 candidates from six national parties, 801 candidates from 36 state parties, 898 candidates from officially recognized parties and 2,385 independent candidates.
A total of 389.9 million out of the total electorate size of 671.4 million voters actually cast their ballot.
The EC employed four million people to run the elections.
Around 700,000 polling booths were set up across the country.
The scale has only increased for the 2009 elections, with the voter base now estimated at 714 million. The operation only gets more complex if one takes into account the indiscriminate use of money, largely through below-the-line spending, by politicians.
All of this only makes the story of the electoral sherpas that much more compelling and our vote that much more precious. Therefore, the least that I and, presumably, all of you could do is go out and vote.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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