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"Towards a level playing field" published in The Hindu on January 6, 2012

Towards a level playing field

The Election Commission of India has been able to bring about a significant level of refinement and reform to the election process over time, yet more needs to be done.

The Election Commission of India (ECI) has emerged, over the last 61 years, as one of the most respected institutions. Over time, this constitutional body has developed new skills, almost with each election, to remain vibrant and evolutionary. It is striving to widen the inclusive and egalitarian framework.

The evolving ethos and development of the ECI could be seen in the context of the political awakening of castes, classes, communities, linguistic groups, Scheduled Tribes, and the multi-religious mosaic, through the stream of India's election laws and processes. Once seen against a backdrop of illiteracy and social tensions, the evolution of the electoral process has involved the vitality of greater and more broad-based participation. In encompassing traditional values and newer integration processes, confronting social tensions with innovative measures to help constructively resolve them, the focus has been to bring different strands into the electoral mainstream. The right to vote has emerged not only as a fundamental right, but as an instrument of political awakening. With increasing focus on youth involvement, there has been a steady movement away from elite domination to widening enfranchisement and participation involving every eligible section.

Deep-rooted social hierarchies
India is a caste-based society with deep-rooted social hierarchies. However, universal adult franchise proved to be a game-changer, for each vote carries equal value. Elections have enabled traditionally marginalised groups to take the democratic route towards empowerment. This process of democratisation of castes turned out to be one of the most significant social developments of the 20th century. Political parties and individual candidates had to accept a policy of reconciliation rather than confrontation. The constitutional provision to reserve a specific number of seats for the Scheduled Castes and Tribes provided a minimum guarantee of participation in governance. From the first election itself this worked significantly in levelling the playing field, which led to the growth of leaders from formerly marginalised sections occupying key elected positions.

Universal suffrage
After holding its first national elections in 1951-52, India achieved the status of the world's largest liberal democracy with universal suffrage. Dr. Ambedkar and the other founding fathers believed this to be a necessary pre-condition, although India's literacy level in 1947 was abysmal. But from the first election onwards, the ECI helped illiterate electors to identify candidates during voting, by allotting a symbol to each (Rule 10 of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961).

Indian democracy is best understood by focussing on how power is distributed. In a modern representative democracy, this formal equality lies in the inclusion in the Constitution of universal adult franchise, with the raison d'etre that man or woman, rich or poor, upper or lower caste, the voter was brought through the electoral roll on to a common platform. Section 61 of the Representation of the People Act 1951 deems that every person whose name is on the electoral rolls has the right to vote. The age-old inequalities were, at one stroke, sought to be eliminated, or at least substantially diminished, by conferring political equality. This, amongst other measures, reflected an enlightened and bold vision, while in many countries different groups, especially women, had to struggle hard and long to obtain franchise. The Constitution provided for other guarantees and protections covering a range of civil liberties, as well as the freedom of religion, the abolition of untouchability and the outlawing of all forms of discrimination.

There is no doubt that the enactment of the Constitution is the single greatest event in the evolution of democracy in India which established democracy in Parliament and in the State Legislatures. The Constituent Assembly recognised the disabilities historically suffered by the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, and reserved seats for them under Article 334 of the Constitution. Under Section 34 of the RP Act, SC and ST candidates need make only half the security deposit for elections. After the initial 60 years of reservation, Parliament extended reservation by 10 years, reserving out of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, 84 for the Scheduled Castes, and 47 for the Scheduled Tribes. Of the 4120 seats in all the Legislative Assemblies combined, 614 are reserved for the Scheduled Castes and 554 for Scheduled Tribes.

Paradigm shift
Over the last decade or so, there has been a paradigm shift in managing elections in India, with the singular aim of improving the quality of election management. A number of reasons can be attributed to this shift towards micromanaging. The challenges involved in delivering credible elections have grown in complexity, and the involvement of the media in vastly increased reportage has sharpened voter awareness. Voter education has had the same result: the expectation levels among voters and other stakeholders have substantially increased. Improvements in communication have empowered citizens to reach out with complaints and feedback. Improved technology has helped in monitoring and concurrent interventions on the part of election managers. In recent years, India witnessed a series of elections to Assemblies. Almost all were hailed as a watershed.

‘Vulnerability mapping'
These are two examples of recent innovative practices that have helped enfranchise vulnerable sections. With traditional social hierarchy based on caste identities continuing to be relevant in the rural areas, threats and intimidation of voters of marginalised communities by dominant groups was identified as a factor that did affect free and fair polls. In the past, such incidents often went unreported. There were reports from opposition candidates and others that many rural dwellers were intimidated from casting their votes, the intimidation flowing from upper castes in the main directed at the lower castes. In 2007, the ECI started using computers to determine which sections of largely rural areas had not voted in previous elections. From this huge exercise was born the concept of “vulnerability mapping.” Through a transparent process, such villages and hamlets that were vulnerable to intimidation were identified. By the time of General Elections 2009, as many as 86,782 villages/hamlets had been marked as ‘vulnerable,' and 3,73,886 persons who were believed likely to disturb the process were ‘bound down' under preventive sections of laws to good behaviour for the pendency of the poll period. Almost 100,000 new polling stations were created, most often in such vulnerable pockets by providing polling stations in their villages or hamlets. This was ensured in a transparent and participatory manner, involving local people, officials, observers and other stakeholders; as a result there were hardly any complaints about any partisan misuse of vulnerability mapping for political ends.

The second example for broadening enfranchisement was the creation of the Booth Level Officer system in 2006- 2007: each BLO was “responsible” for voters registered at one polling station, usually up to 1,500 voters. At one stroke, this official was made the keeper of the electoral roll at the cutting edge. As this official became more familiar with his or her ‘territory', it was easier to eliminate names of those who may have shifted out or died, and add names of those who have moved in, or turned 18 on January 1, thus becoming eligible to vote. This strategy proved to be a leveller, making it difficult to keep people out of the rolls. With a photo electoral card in hand and a corresponding photo on the rolls, this helped substantially reduce bogus voting, which now entails the risk of the automatic registration of a first information report and probable arrest.

There is more ground to be covered. As long as criminality remains in the body politic in terms of parliamentarians and Legislative Assembly members with criminal antecedents, and as long as financial limits are breached during elections, there will be domination by some groups over comparatively ‘weaker sections.' However, this does not diminish the gains achieved over the last six decades, which the ECI continues to fortify — to the widespread appreciation of the country at large.

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