For a significant part of the next five weeks, India will hold elections. These are being held in seven phases for the 17th Lok Sabha. Though the voting systems are different, the eligible voting population of more than 900 million is 3.5 times as large as the United States’ and nearly six times larger than those of Indonesia, Japan, Russia and Brazil. One way to imagine the complexity of Indian elections is to think of a single election commission holding elections in all these countries at the same time.

The Election Commission of India (EC) will deploy over 10 million polling and security staff, over 50 helicopters and 600 trains to conduct the exercise across nearly one million polling stations.

The logistics related to Indian elections have evolved substantially over the last seven decades. India’s first general election in 1951-52 was held over four months, in 68 phases, with about 170 million voters. Given the widespread illiteracy, each candidate/ party was assigned a colour and a symbol (this predates McDonald’s pictorial cash register system by at least a decade). Two million bullet- and tamper-proof ballot boxes of steel were used. An indelible ink was formulated to avoid impersonation—its sole supplier till this day is a company called Mysore Paints and Varnish Ltd (MPVL), set up by the Maharaja of Mysore in 1937. The formula is a closely guarded secret, applied to the forefinger of the left hand, and contains silver nitrate which cannot be washed off and fades only as new skin cells are generated after several weeks. The third Lok Sabha elections of 1962 saw 91 multi-seat constituencies abolished, and its terms had three prime ministers: Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded Jawaharlal Nehru and then Indira Gandhi succeeded Shastri, all of the Congress. The second largest party varied until the ninth Lok Sabha elections of 1989, after which the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have exchanged first and second place as the only two parties with a truly national footprint.

India has developed an indigenous system of voting machines that, by most accounts, is tamper-and-hack resistant (they are not networked). The electronic voting machine (EVM) system for Indian elections is made up of three units: a balloting unit that displays the candidates and their symbols to voters, a control unit that records the vote, and a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT).

The EVMs are powered by a 6-volt battery that makes them immune to power cuts. Sujatha Rangarajan, a popular Tamil writer, polymath and engineer, led the team that developed the EVM system. It was designed for ruggedness, tamper resistance and ease of use for multiple candidates (up to 64) per constituency.

Whether the EVMs are truly tamper-proof is a matter of much controversy. Having reviewed a lot of material, I would say it is significantly hack-and-tamper resistant (but not totally tamper-proof if fraudsters are able to take over the control unit). That said, large-scale rigging is nearly impossible, given the procedural safeguards. Any alternative system would be subject to similar or greater vulnerabilities.

India’s first-past-the-post system means that we have been governed by parties (in coalition) with a share of less than 40% of the total vote for the past 20 years. Given India’s magnificent diversity and the more recent fiscal devolution to states, it seems rather likely that this will not only continue but perhaps even evolve further to a stage where parties in various states will hold the balance of power over the two truly national parties.

The only open question is whether the state-based parties align clearly with the left or right of the political aisle or play an opportunistic and situation-based role.

What, if anything, needs to change?

The conduct—procedure, logistics, human resources—of Indian elections deserves a Nobel Prize (for peace perhaps?), in my opinion. India is truly the gold standard here. Importantly, the country is improving with each election and each (court) challenge. What needs significant improvement, however, is voter registration, registry clean-up, and voter awareness and education.

India does a poor job of its electoral rolls and de-duplication is mired in corruption and inefficiency. India’s biometric registration system of Aadhaar is not a citizenship registry and it is not easy to verify people’s age (18 years or above for franchise eligibility) or citizenship in a foolproof way. By most accounts, minorities, women and young voters are under registered on voter rolls.

An area that needs significant review and modernization is the Model Code of Conduct (MCC). Contrary to popular opinion, this is a code agreed upon by the various political parties, and while the EC has many suo moto powers, aspects of the MCC are more like guidelines than prosecutable rules. With the significant new role of social media and the very creative sidesteps around current guidelines, the time has come to modernize and update it; an EC led exercise for this is overdue.

The most important required reform, of course, is election funding. The half-hearted attempts by various parties, including the anaemic electoral bonds introduced by the BJP, are not nearly enough. Election funding is at the root of much corruption in India. Until it is completely overhauled, we must not rest easy.

PS: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities," said Albus Dumbledore in 'Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets'.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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