Home / Politics / Policy /  General election in India | The time of reckoning

New Delhi: The numbers, when it comes to an Indian election, can be mind-numbing.

In the coming general election, spread across a little more than a month in April and May, 814 million people are eligible to vote—roughly three times the population of the US. Some 120 million, or about 24 times the population of Singapore, are first-time voters.

They will be queuing up to vote at 930,000 polling stations across the country to elect 543 representatives to the Lok Sabha in an exercise that will cost the taxpayer about 6,000 crore (about $1 billion). A total of 1.4 million electronic voting machines will be used.

Add to those numbers an acrimonious, often vicious, campaign in the heat and dust of the Indian countryside, rising political temperatures, rifts along regional, religious, caste and community lines—that can make the world’s largest exercise in adult franchise an electoral tinderbox.

Chief election commissioner (CEC) Veeravalli Sundaram Sampath, 64, who has the job of overseeing the polls, keeping the peace, and ensuring parties and candidates play by the rules, knows the magnitude of the task he has in hand.

“Elections to the world’s largest democracy pose immense challenges with respect to logistics and man and material management," said Sampath, a 1973-batch Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from the Andhra Pradesh cadre, who took over as India’s 18th CEC on 11 June 2012 from S.Y. Quraishi.

Sampath, who was born in Tamil Nadu and is described as a deeply religious person by those who know him well, also has other qualities required to pull off the job: he is said to be a tough but fair man, capable of dealing with the issues head-on.

“He is a big picture man and not narrow-minded," a serving IAS officer of the Andhra Pradesh cadre said about the CEC. “He does not evoke strong reactions—you wouldn’t love him or hate him. He is mentally suited to handle this charge. He doesn’t warm up very easily."

The person didn’t want to be named.

Still, this general election is perhaps the most challenging one overseen by any Indian CEC.

It comes at a time when the economy is struggling for recovery from an extended downturn after 10 years of rule by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which, in its second term, has been weighed down by a rash of corruption scandals.

After two back-to-back defeats, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is champing at the bit to regain power in an election that’s, at one level, a face-off between its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, 63, and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, 43.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), led by self-styled anarchist Arvind Kejriwal, 45, has appropriated for itself the role of a disruptive force in the election.

“For us at the Election Commission (EC), any election is as important," Sampath, who has more than 40 years’ experience as a civil servant, said in an interview (see accompanying Q&A).

“Whether we are conducting election for Karnataka, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh or Madhya Pradesh, we approach every election with the same amount of importance and significance. When it is a national election, yes, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any chief election commissioner. In that respect, yes, it has a special significance. But, as far as importance is concerned, every election for the Election Commission is important."

The conduct of the election will be closely watched.

This election has elicited a lot of interest from new democracies and countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, particularly from the nations swept by the Arab Spring—the wave of protests and violent unrest that swept parts of the Arab world beginning in late 2010. Those nations want to send observers.

Sampath looks at his job in institutional terms, in terms of the role of the Election Commission of India.

“It is a very great, historic opportunity for us," he said. “It is an institution with tremendous heritage, with enormous goodwill. So, if anything, whatever little we do, we should contribute to the enhancement of the image of the Election Commission."

The election to the 16th Lok Sabha has to be seen in a larger social context—against the backdrop of poverty levels dropping to a record 22% in 2011-12 from 37.2% in 2004-05.

That added 150 million people to the burgeoning middle class. Of these, 110 million are in rural India and have growing aspirations which, if they are not fulfilled, are a recipe for disaster and unrest.

Given the economy has failed to generate a sufficient number of jobs to absorb the young demography—65% of India’s 1.2 billion population is estimated to be under the age of 35—their frustration with their circumstances may be a critical determinant in what opinion polls are forecasting will be a closely fought election.

But organizing elections are par for the course for Sampath, who will be CEC until he reaches his retirement age of 65 in January next year.

“I am here to do a job. Earlier the role of the Election Commission used to be very seasonal," he said. “The housekeeping functions related to election management have got a lot of importance. Now elections are not few and far. Elections are more and more. In a year, if you see the last few years, two bunches of state elections are happening every year."

Those who know him say Sampath is god-fearing and religious and has a dour and curt style of functioning.

“He doesn’t mince words, which, at times, has made some of his colleagues uncomfortable," said a former IAS officer on condition of anonymity. “Also, this brusque nature almost pushed one of his personal assistants to take the decision to resign. He later didn’t. Overall, he has been an okay officer. These elections will also find him (Sampath) overseeing the electoral campaign of some of his former colleagues from the bureaucracy."

Former bureaucrats such as ex-petroleum secretary R.S. Pandey and ex-home secretary R.K. Singh, former Mumbai police commissioner Satya Pal Singh and Hardeep Puri, India’s former permanent representative to the United Nations, have entered the political fray.

“He is a god-fearing and cautious person," another retired IAS official, who has worked with Sampath, said. “He doesn’t project himself and is media-shy. A typical Tamilian, he is self-effacing and, hence, makes a terrific bureaucrat. He also likes visiting temples when he is travelling. He is understated but doesn’t shy away from expressing his irritation."

Sampath served as the top civil servant in several coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh, and worked in the departments of agriculture, energy and finance.

He has also worked as head of the National Institute of Rural Development, after which he joined the central government as secretary, department of chemicals and petrochemicals, and later briefly served as power secretary.

A former head of a state-owned utility firm who didn’t wish to be identified said: “He is very business-like and seeks solutions. He take issues head on and has been responsible for the power sector reforms in Andhra Pradesh."

One little known fact about Sampath is that he likes to brew his own coffee and is particular about the beans and their sourcing.

Having shifted base to the capital city from Hyderabad, the Sampath household sources coffee beans from a shop in Khanna market neighbouring Lodhi colony—a south-central part of New Delhi.

Only if Indian elections were such an easy brew.

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