Imagine a situation wherein Babloo, my handyman, in the middle of a routine chore at my home, whips out his mobile phone and punches out a text message to cast his vote for his favourite candidate, Rahul Gandhi, without being present in Amethi.
Sounds like fiction? Not really.
If all goes well, voting through SMS would be among the options of the alternative e-voting (or online voting) package being offered to the three million voters of the Ahmedabad Muncipal Corporation next October. At the moment, the urban development ministry has floated the idea for discussion and has marked 25 May as the deadline for public comments.
In all likelihood, it will go through and will mark a very interesting reworking of the voting process in this country. First, it was the physical ballot and then it was the electronic voting machines (EVMs).
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And, now it will be e-voting, albeit for municipal- and panchayat-level elections. Unlike Internet connectivity, which is estimated at around 70 million connections, mobile phone penetration is substantially higher—nearly 600 million connections at the end of March. (E-voting can be undertaken either by voting over a home Internet connection, from a specially designated Internet kiosk or SMS over the mobile phone.)
While e-voting would no doubt make it easier to vote and, hence, hopefully enhance voter participation, the bigger contribution could be disintermediation of a kind that we have never witnessed; think of what the automated teller machine (ATM) did to empower bank customers or how the posting of exam results on the Web brought down the burden of dissemination as well as access of information to eager students. Just like the Internet spelt the death of distance, it is also a champion of disintermediation, forcing companies to adapt or die. Now, politicians and political parties may be forced to face up to disintermediation of the voting process.
Conventionally, the last mile is what determines voter turnout and the ability of the candidates to influence voter opinion at the penultimate moment—given the diminishing margin of victory and defeat, this is by no means unimportant. The voting booth is the last mass contact point to target the voter. Already, the traditional modes of mass contact such as rallies used in the run-up to voting day are on the wane—partly because of voter fatigue and also due to the fact that most parties have ceased to rely on cadres.
If indeed e-voting does happen, then it will redefine the manner in which a candidate establishes contact with voters. It would require a lot more resources and energy to reach out to voters, especially the mobile segments of the population, improving accountability.
The impact would vary with the territory and would be largely be difficult to forecast; suffice to say that it would be a harbinger of change. For instance, in a state like Gujarat, which is largely a two-party set-up, it could by bringing in new voters favour the party that normally does well with a higher voter turnout. Typically, this would be the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—a higher turnout enables it to offset the disadvantage of block voting by alienated minorities. At the same time, by levelling the field as it were, it may make it easier for newer parties to emerge on the scene.
Interestingly, the initiative was first proposed by the State Election Commission (SEC) and came about after a two-year exercise for electoral reforms at the local level; through a series of seminars held across the state, SEC engaged nearly all stakeholders. Following the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian Constitution, SEC is empowered to make the changes.
However, to effect the changes, it requires the state government’s concurrence as well as effort to change the rules and legislation. Moves to introduce compulsory voting, negative voting (wherein a voter does not want to cast a vote for any of the candidates) and 50% reservation for women, too, emerged from this exercise; the legislation to clear this, championed by chief minister Narendra Modi, was approved by the Gujarat assembly, though it failed to become a law after governor Kamla Beniwal returned it to the assembly in December.
Ignoring the politics, it is apparent that the third tier of government—local municipal and village bodies—are emerging as the crucible of very bold electoral initiatives. For instance, if indeed compulsory voting had gone through, it would have resolved the problem of plurality of an electoral verdict—at present the winner rarely has the majority of the votes and is just an instance of the first-past-the-post principle.
The 13th Finance Commission has already initiated plans for fiscal empowerment of the third tier by setting aside for it a maximum of 2.5% of the annual resource devolution from the Centre to the states. Together with the proposed electoral changes, it is clear that the polity at this level of government is poised for change. It’s difficult to say how this would pan out and predict the attendant impact. But if technology can be used to improve the democratic process and thereby ensure better accountability of the elected, then it should be welcomed.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org