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Home >Opinion >General elections 2014: Fair perhaps, but by no means lovely
The fairness aspect has also come under a cloud from many quarters on account of the extremely drawn out nature of the 2014 polls, where the polling has been divided into nine phases spread out over five weeks. Photo: AFP
The fairness aspect has also come under a cloud from many quarters on account of the extremely drawn out nature of the 2014 polls, where the polling has been divided into nine phases spread out over five weeks. Photo: AFP

General elections 2014: Fair perhaps, but by no means lovely

A number of anomalies have emergedthe most worrisome of these has been the disappearance of several lakh names from the voters' list in Maharashtra

India is now into the final stretch of its multi-phase general elections. There has been much back-patting about the resilience of the world’s biggest democracy, the higher than average voter turn-out and the mindboggling logistics involved in pulling it all off.

To be sure, the successful conduct of elections is a central—though only a paltry—measure by which to assess the health of a democracy. But even here, a number of anomalies have emerged that ought to be a matter of serious concern, as they could have repercussions in the future.

The most worrisome of these has been the disappearance of several lakh names from the voters’ list in Maharashtra, particularly in Mumbai and Pune. Apparently, the names got deleted by mistake in a drive undertaken to get rid of the names of voters who had been inactive for a long time because they had either shifted out or died.

The Election Commission (EC) has apologized for these omissions. But at the same time, it also decided that the voters who missed out will not be given a separate chance to vote in this election. This, in effect, amounts to a large-scale denial of a democratic right for no fault of the citizen. Who is to say how much of an impact this mass disenfranchisement would have on the outcome of these elections?

This kind of technical failure takes on an even more worrying aspect when we consider the fact that the entire electoral roll had been fully computerized. Technology, we were told, would make for greater efficiency. But it is clear now that technology is no panacea for missing voter names or bogus voting. Just as in cricket the on-field umpire cannot be done away with no matter how advanced the technology-driven decision referral system (DRS) becomes, there can be no substitute for careful human oversight in the single most important political exercise in a representative democracy.

If anything, the technological aspects of the electoral process have been more of a cause for concern, with several reports of the electronic voting machines (EVMs) malfunctioning. Apart from this, there have also been allegations of large-scale rigging, and blatant flouting of EC’s model code of conduct by all the major parties—with campaign advertisements continuing well past the 48-hour pre-poll moratorium, incendiary statements being frequently made by rival candidates, and even attempts being to intimidate EC itself through thinly veiled threats .

Then there are the time-honoured criminal tactics—distributing cash to voters, physical attacks on marginalized sections of voters, especially Dalits, and booth-capturing.

The fairness aspect has also come under a cloud from many quarters on account of the extremely drawn out nature of the 2014 polls, where the polling has been divided into nine phases spread out over five weeks.

While the rationale behind this practice is to ensure adequate security, which may not be possible if the entire nation were to go to polls on a single day, it has also inadvertently created ample scope for influencing voter decisions. This unfair influencing—canvassing by other means, as it were—could happen (and has happened) via a so-called opinion poll conducted and publicized while the elections are still under way, or by a candidate turning the filing of nomination papers into a media event, again in violation of fair poll norms, or it could even take the form of an evolving multi-phase campaign strategy formulated to take advantage of staggered voting.

The fundamental problem with multi-phase polling, as the social scientist Shaibal Gupta points out in this report, is that, “In the first phase, people may have voted out of innocence. But towards the end, voting is no longer as innocent as it gets corrupted by rumours. There is an asymmetry in information." In other words, those voting, say, in the last phase of the polls may vote differently from how they would have voted had they voted in the first phase simply because of all that they may have heard or seen in the intervening period.

Going by the shifting positions of the different lead campaigners of the various political parties and their changing perceptions of voter mood, as also the probable compulsions with regard to post-poll alliance-making, it is already clear that parties are actively building their canvassing strategies around this information asymmetry, with motivated claims and counter-claims about probable victors and voting patterns.

Adding to all the chaos is the massive number of complaints that have flooded EC—55,000 as of mid-March, and we keep hearing of fresh sets of complaints being filed on a daily basis—which means that it would be logistically impossible for EC to take up most of the complaints. To top it all off, the level of public discourse of the contestants in this election has plumbed what seems to be a historic low—marked by mutual mudslinging, petty personal attacks, name-calling and a relentless search for skeletons in each other’s cupboards.

All this is not to say that the polls have not been, by our own past standards, largely free and fair. But in an election as closely fought as this one—notwithstanding all the talk in the media about the next prime minister being a foregone conclusion—and with so much at stake, even minor infringements can result in major dislocations. This is all the more reason for EC to be even more vigilant, and impose its norms with zero tolerance for violations, even if it is by a prime ministerial candidate , and even if it means ordering re-poll after re-poll.

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