Sunday 5 February 2012

For Election Commission, India’s voters are juvenile (Sunday Guardian)


Voters show their identity cards during re-polling at a booth for Punjab Assembly polls in Amritsar on Thursday. PTI
ach election of an MP or an MLA in India begins with a lie, which is the solemn pledge that the country's ridiculously low legal limits on expenditure by candidates have been followed. Although a plausible case may be made out that a lifetime in the administration may lead to significant dissociation from reality, the odds are that even the Chief Election Commissioner and his two colleagues know that candidates in India spend much more than they are legally entitled to. However, as yet, we have to hear of a poll result getting countermanded because a candidate has spent above the legal maximum during the campaign. Certainly, there are myrmidons of the EC who snoop on public rallies, to catch a candidate in the act of handing over cash. However, all that such efforts have resulted in is to drive expenditure underground, from visible manifestations such as posters or rallies to hidden ones such as the handing out of currency to induce voters to make their choice in a way which benefits the more generous candidates. During the 1996 polls, voters in a Maharashtra constituency said that they would cast their votes for "Gandhi Baba". This did not mean that the Mahatma had come back to fight the polls, only that votes would go to the candidate lavishly passing around Rs 500 notes, each of which has the smiling countenance of the Father of the Nation. The voters being straightforward, they voted in the direction indicated by the shower of currency. Those less principled may have taken the money and yet voted for more stingy candidates.
That money is a decisive factor in elections in India is a fact known to each election agent of a major candidate. However, because of laws that are unenforceable, besides being unreasonable, the money that gets spent comes from undeclared sources. As the most prolific of such sources are from the underground — including terror groups and narcotics peddlers — our politicians get indebted to the very people whom they have an obligation under the Constitution of India to protect the people against. If the Election Commission of India has made any difference to this situation over the years, it has only been in the direction of pushing up expenses to meet the higher costs of concealment, expenses that may reasonably be said to include bribes paid to EC officials nosing around the campaign trail. India is a democracy unique in the complete trust with which an officialdom known to be feral and corrupt in other lines of activity is nevertheless assumed to be 100% unbiased and financially honest where the conduct of elections is concerned. This despite circumstantial evidence linking several chief commissioners and commissioners with political bias. Indeed, the Union Cabinet had a former CEC, M.S. Gill, within its ranks, a gentleman who oversaw the immensely successful (from the point of view of the many who made money out of it) 2010 Commonwealth Games. When the government of the day chooses a CEC, such as the celebrated Navin Chawla, it is not outside the realm of possibility that considerations of propinquity to individuals in the ruling group may have played some small part in the decision.
Although very little of this debate has breached the many firewalls that exist between news relevant to the public interest and the mainstream media, online there has been a furious debate about the vulnerability of electronic voting machines to manipulation. Several countries that once used EVMs have gone back to paper ballots, because of the risk of tampering with the results. This far, the Election Commission has not made available to independent researchers any EVMs actually used in polling, although this group has shown the ways in which the votes recorded can differ sharply from those actually polled. Trusting EVMs in the hands of the election machinery requires the assumption that the many thousands of poll officials are honest and not tilted towards or against any particular political party. The EC is insistent in implying that this is indeed the case, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. That the commissioners are without exception former members of the administrative service may explain such a belief in the infallibility of officialdom. Just as the British "steel frame" saw themselves as being perfect and different from the population they governed, so do those who comprise the "wicker" frame of the present manifestation of the Imperial Civil Service.
hile they themselves are perfect, the voters are not. Hence, the insistence of the EC that a so-called "Model Code of Conduct" be put into effect. During the period from the launch of candidacies to the counting of votes, several of the essential functions of government get banned. Hopefully, there will not occur a national calamity during such a period, else the EC may claim that a vigorous response to the same is a way of "influencing" the voter. The EC in India believes that voters are easily influenceable. Should a government launch a welfare scheme just before the polls, the EC believes that voters will not have the brain matter needed to know that this is a poll gimmick, but may get stampeded into voting for those responsible for such populism. Officers get transferred on whim and rumour, although much more in some states than in others. Statues of BSP icons are ordered to be covered up, but not the innumerable manifestations of the immense love of the Indian people for the family who (in the words of Sunil Khilnani) originated the very idea of India, the Nehru-Gandhis. For most adults, looking at a statue of Mayawati or Indira Gandhi would hardly result in a change in voting preference. For the EC, that of the former certainly does, while that of the latter has no such deadly effect. The people of India are awaiting an edict of the EC to the effect that traffic policemen should show their legs rather than their hands while directing traffic, as the hand is the symbol of the political party that appointed the present CEC and ECs.
When will we get a CEC who asks that the same level of transparency be brought into election funding in India as is present in the US? Who will call for an auction of properties disclosed by a candidate, if it be found that the same have been undervalued? In their search for juveniles, perhaps the commissioners need to look away from the people towards themselves.

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