India’s greatest feat

Published: November 7, 2015
The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland in 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House. He is Executive Director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are his own

The writer is the editor and translator of Why I write: Essays by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Westland in 2014. His book, India, Low Trust Society, will be published by Random House. He is Executive Director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are his own [email protected]

The finest achievement of Indian democracy is the functioning of the election commission of India.

In that sense, it is the bureaucracy and the state machinery’s contribution and not that of the people. India’s election process is smoother, more efficient, more credible, cheaper to conduct and quicker to deliver than any other large democracy, including the United States. The elections in Bihar, which just ended, demonstrate this fact. Many of us, who are no longer young, will remember that Bihar and Haryana were states where elections were not easy to conduct. I am not just referring to the electoral violence, which seems to have ended almost entirely in India, but also the lack of fuss with which the government does its job.

Two election commissioners changed the way elections were conducted in India. The first was TN Seshan, who was chief election commissioner (CEC) from 1990 to 1996. He was important because before him the CEC was more or less a puppet of the government. Seshan made his office powerful, using the laws already available to him. Under him the commission began to firmly implement the codes of conduct. If I remember correctly, it was during his time that the election commission began to send videographers to record campaign speeches.

He also ensured that no sops were promised by the government during the period of campaigning. The first real smooth election in Bihar was the 1995 one under Seshan, in which Lalu Yadav won. That was 20 years ago. Seshan had deployed 650 companies of paramilitary units (meaning about 65,000 people) to guard the polling stations and keep the peace. His success in that election more or less ended the period of anarchy that many of us were used to seeing during elections and since then it has been taken for granted by us that elections in India will be free and fair.

Seshan’s successor as CEC was MS Gill (1996 to 2001). Like Seshan, Gill was a former bureaucrat and therefore totally familiar with how and where the election commission should intervene to neutralise the political parties in office.

If Seshan made elections credible, Gill’s contribution was on the side of the voter. He introduced the electronic voting machines (EVM) that have reduced the time taken for people to vote to such an extent that most of us have to wait for no longer than a couple of minutes before casting our vote.

The EVM, as most Indians call it, is a machine of pure genius. It is simple of design and each time I vote I marvel at how easy it is to do so these days. It costs Rs5,500 per unit to make originally and runs on a battery, and so is not affected by power cuts.

India’s parties are represented by symbols because of large levels of illiteracy and it is the easiest thing for anyone to do to go to the symbol of their choice and press the button next to it. A loud beep assures them that their vote has been included.

Gill said in an interview once that the machines had been around before his time but they had not been tested. He conducted a mock test in a market with people including those who could not read and he was convinced that they would work. They were first deployed in 1996 and 1998 in a few assembly constituencies and soon the paper ballot was eliminated. I had met him in Hyderabad just after he had deployed the EVMs and I remember how excited he was. He spoke continuously for 40 minutes before asking me why I had come to see him.

In the current Bihar elections, Rs300 crore was spent by the election commission on conducting elections and securing the polling booths. To put that in perspective, Australia’s election commission has an annual budget of Rs1,700 crore and Bihar has a population four times that of Australia.

The other thing that this election in Bihar brought was innovations in how the commission interacted with candidates. Reports say that approvals, which usually were difficult to get, now took less than 24 hours because of this. These approvals relate to setting up loudspeakers and holding rallies, all of which are monitored.
The second thing is a software to track complaints by voters and in Bihar 7,452 complaints were received of which 7,316 were disposed of, which is to me remarkable. The last thing is a software to track private vehicles which are commandeered by the election commission for its use, through GPS, and quick payment for their use.

Live webcasting from polling booths is now also being used to make the process more secure. It seems to me that the election process is getting better with each passing year and it is something all Indians can be very proud of.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 8th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • Alam
    Nov 8, 2015 - 1:27AM

    Technology and all are built by israelis and christian and 0 by hindu…so i think pakistanis should resolve kashmir issue before using all this…..democracy isn’t allowed in islam.Recommend

  • sabi
    Nov 8, 2015 - 1:29AM

    Good thing must be appreciated.Well done ECI. Recommend

  • harkol
    Nov 8, 2015 - 2:23AM

    Prior to TN seshan, there was large scale rigging of elections. He completely stopped that by sheer power of his character & will. He stared down all powerful politicians and Supreme Court backed him.

    Ever since, the elections in India have been mostly free of violence and fair. Even Kashmir (Where rigging was rampant) started seeing fair elections held after TN Seshan. He is a true hero India found at the right juncture.Recommend

    Nov 8, 2015 - 4:31AM

    Hurray! Aakar Patel has found something good about India!Recommend

  • John B
    Nov 8, 2015 - 5:27AM

    People often take it for granted the logistics of conducting an election. I am always amazed how India managed to do it. The entire credibility of the system depends on the machine and people that runs it. Very election cycle india election is a global news. The MO of this election process is easily adaptable in other countries, especially where there is an allegation of corruption.Recommend

  • JSM
    Nov 8, 2015 - 6:19AM

    I did not know that Aakar Patel was an Indian.Recommend

  • Proud Secular Hindu
    Nov 8, 2015 - 9:06AM

    tN Seshan introduced Photo ID , which was game changer. Latest Book of Nandan Nilkeni envisages technology to be used to make election more cost efficient , simpler and faster, by use of Mobile Technology. World can wait and watch out in 2019 General elections!! Recommend

  • Parvez
    Nov 8, 2015 - 1:49PM

    So all it takes is two or three honest, patriotic bureaucrats to do the job……finding them in Pakistan is the hard part.Recommend

  • Nov 8, 2015 - 3:28PM

    It is really sad. The world fully knows, or at least the Western countries, that the whole process
    is riddled with mega corruption. This sham pseudo democracy has been
    around for 68 years. Deeply ensconced in the psyche of your average
    Indian toilet searcher. It’s all a matter of ‘how much do I get for my vote’.
    Belay the thought that your vote makes a difference. It is all economics,
    rather, how many idlis and dosas will I be able to buy…for myself…family?Recommend

  • observer
    Nov 8, 2015 - 3:37PM


    So all it takes is two or three honest, patriotic bureaucrats to do the job……finding them in Pakistan is the hard part.

    Actually in addition to some bureaucrats it takes,

    A. A Constitution upheld by a Judiciary.
    B. Armed Forces subservient to the civilians.
    C. Respect for people’s right to chose as they please
    D. The belief that ALL citizens are equally deserving of elected office.

    Finding all of them in Pakistan is impossible.Recommend

  • Nov 8, 2015 - 4:20PM

    Did not know that Shive Sena saniaks, like you, can even read and write English!Recommend

  • JSM
    Nov 8, 2015 - 8:24PM

    Very amusing observation. Enjoy.Recommend

  • JSM
    Nov 9, 2015 - 6:08AM

    BTW I am not a Shiv Sainik- I am a Sikh, who after Mumbai attack and the way it has been dealt with in Pakistan has lost all respect for the Pakistani way of dealing with serious issues.Recommend

  • Iced
    Nov 9, 2015 - 8:55AM

    @Rangoonwala, since you are making such a generalist statement with such conviction, I assume you are either Ban Ki-Moon, or one of the leaders of a P5 country using a pseudonym.

    Thank you for taking the time off from your busy schedule to provide us with your laser sharp perspective. We stand enlightened by your brilliance and are clearly not worthy of your magnificence.Recommend

  • Rao
    Nov 9, 2015 - 6:13PM

    Yet, I consider India is only a quasi-democracy in practice.Recommend

  • Rao
    Nov 9, 2015 - 8:03PM

    Yet, I consider India is only a quasi-democracy in practice. It’s democracy is still runs along lines of religion, caste, North-Soth divide, language etc. But, prevailing democracy however imperfect may has been, is better than political culture of hundred and one countries. Thanks to fore sights of founding fathers!Recommend

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