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"Umpiring a gigantic exercise" published in The Hindu on January 17, 2012

Umpiring a gigantic exercise

The men, the machines and the rest of the logistics behind Elections 2009, added up to an extraordinary exercise.

"It is truly the greatest show on Earth, an ode to a diverse and democratic ethos… an inspiration to all the world," commented The New York Times, on General Elections 2009. What makes India's elections unique and special? Is it the size, the magnitude, the diversity, the complexities, or something of all these? Or is it about the boldness of the democratic enterprise from a time when there was no shortage of sceptics who said India's tryst with democracy could not possibly last: India's literacy rate in 1947 was 16 per cent.

That initial scepticism has long since been laid to rest. With each passing election, India has re-confirmed its status as a democratic beacon, conducting elections to Parliament and the State Assemblies on time, each time. We only have to look at the political churning in many parts of the world to realise that India has emerged in the world's consciousness as a model for a plural democracy. As a former Chief Election Commissioner, I would affirm that our standards of election management are arguably among the world's best.

Scale of planning
See the statistics: of a population of one billion-plus, there were 714 million eligible voters over the age of 18 on the photo electoral rolls. We worked hard to equip 82 per cent, or almost 580 million voters, each with a photo identity card. Exactly 8,34,944 polling stations were established; 1.18 million Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) mobilised; over 11 million personnel deployed on election duty. Since these were phased elections, men and machines had to be moved after the completion of one phase to another part for the next. The scale of planning can be imagined. The Election Commission of India (ECI) tried to leave nothing to chance, factoring every link in a huge chain, and planning contingences for every possible obstacle.

Micro-management of details
What is perhaps equally important is that the merit of the Indian electoral system is not sought to be judged by these numbers alone, but on a complex mosaic of laws and practices, judicial pronouncements; detailed training manuals; a vast pyramid of officials made conversant with these manuals and instructions; the micro-management of details by the ECI and its officials; voter education, the implementation of the Model Code of Conduct for the players, and importantly the distance maintained from the executive government of the day. Indeed, hundreds of links in a complex chain needed to be factored in, with the ECI positioning itself as an umpire for an enterprise so gigantic.

Amid all this, the value of a single vote too mattered. A polling station was set up for a single voter deep in the Gir forest of Gujarat, and to let this voter exercise his franchise a polling station was set up that functioned for the statutory eight hours. And that too is why the Commission celebrated the grit and commitment of 12 men carrying EVMs and equipment on their backs, who volunteered to trek 45 km in knee-deep snow to cross a pass at 16,500 feet before they could descend to reach two inhospitable polling stations to enable 37 voters to cast their votes in Zanskar.

By May 2009, the rest of India was already facing a gruelling summer. The media wrote that turnout could be affected. The Commission did its best to mitigate the situation by asking District Magistrates to make provision for drinking water and shade at polling stations wherever possible. As innumerable photographs were to testify, voters, men and women, young and old and the infirm, defied the scorching sun to notch up an impressive 58.2 per cent turnout. The ECI took the initiative to help the physically challenged: ramps for the wheelchair-bound, and EVMs modified for the visibly-challenged Braille-literate to vote independent of assistance.

While election management bodies are not concerned about electoral outcomes, stock-taking and introspection are inevitable after each poll. The Commission approached this election in a somewhat difficult domestic, regional and indeed global security context. The aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror strike, and inputs about possible violence, disruptions and attempts to derail the poll process, were factored in. Within India were elements that stood for the very antithesis of any democratic exercise. These inputs resulted in detailed planning including precautionary security placements. There was detailed planning, with district and parliamentary constituencies as units (there were 626 districts and 543 parliamentary constituencies) as the focus. If Elections 2009 were recognised as having been peaceful and successful, it was largely because they were tackled as arguably the world's largest management project, something that could not possibly be taught at business school. Nor was this the result of a one-off exercise. Some of the innovations employed had been tried and improved upon particularly over the last decade, through Elections 2004 as well as elections to various Legislative Assemblies that followed. Let me provide just one example: communication.

Communication network
In a country as vast and diverse as India, if every vote were truly to matter, the logistics needed to reach man and machine to the voter required months of detailing. Also essential was the creation of as good a communication network as possible. Fortunately, between the parliamentary elections of 2004 and 2009 the mobile phone network had grown to cover about 62 per cent of the country. But in order to reach uncovered polling stations, usually in inhospitable areas, a systematic mapping of communication assets and resources was done with reference to every polling station. Mobile connectivity, landline phones, high frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) communication equipment, and satellite phones were used. Where none of these worked (as in high mountain areas or deep forests), dedicated “runners” were identified to track remote polling stations. Through this system almost all polling stations could be contacted by supervising officials. For the Commissioners sitting in the Delhi headquarters on polling day, it was vital to know what was happening in the remotest part, as quickly as possible. Most of the complaints we received were verified within two hours. This achievement also created a huge psychological presence of the Commission even in the remotest of locations.

Challenges manifold
The challenges were manifold. Ensuring the timely movement of Central police forces from one State to another and from one phase of polling to another, on time, involved extensive monitoring. To move the police forces, the Railway Board organised 119 special trains with 3,060 coaches. Some 6,800 policemen were airlifted, overflying Bangladesh. Indian Air Force planes were hired, as were chartered planes from the national carrier, to maintain the time schedule. Transporting a few million polling personnel, supervisory and supporting staff and police personnel to polling stations on each one of the five polling days and transporting EVMs, had to be done with reference to each polling station. Helicopters were deployed in difficult terrain; some were converted into mobile medical clinics to provide medical relief to those in need. If they were not airborne within a few minutes, the Commission had to be informed. Logistically, even the most difficult and troublesome movements and interventions came on the ECI's radar. In fact, the trekking by 12 polling men in Zanskar was tracked by the Election Commission headquarters as closely as was done by the district and State control rooms.

It could be argued that in a parliamentary election as few as 37 votes in the normal course may not have made much of a difference. But the spirit that guided the Commission was that from North to South, from violence- prone areas to tribal populations, each vote did matter, and the effort put in was more than worthwhile, in keeping with the trust implicit in the powers conferred on the Election Commission under the Constitution.

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