INDIA: The Largest Democratic Election in Human History

14 May 2004

By Vivek Ramkumar

The largest democratic election in human history ended yesterday in India. Most of the headlines today focused on the horse race, that is, the surprising defeat of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the return to power of the Congress Party. But the election process itself deserves attention, both for its extraordinary scale, and for the remarkable cleanup work undertaken by civil society.

Just as a matter of scale, the Indian election ranks as a miracle. The country includes some 670 million registered voters – almost more than the combined voter strength of all the countries of the developed world, including the United States, the countries of Western Europe, Australia, Canada, and Japan. These numbers make impossible a single-day ballot: Voting started on April 20 and continued in five phases, in some 800,000 polling stations around the country, under the supervision of nearly five million bureaucrats. From an estimated 4,000 candidates, Indian voters selected 543 people for the National Assembly (Lok Sabha).

Such a massive voting process also leaves lots of room for corruption and fraud. Politicians use money (to bribe voters) and muscle (to intimidate voters) in their quest for power. In the northern Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, criminal gangs have long been employed by political parties to take control of polling stations and cast all votes at the stations in favor of one political candidate. The introduction of Electronic Voting Machines during the current elections did not deter such activity: Gun-toting ‘private contractors’ now boast of employing science and engineering graduates to rig the machines in ‘captured’ polling stations.

The scope for blatant electoral abuse in India also encourages corrupt individuals to seek political office. Some seek parliamentary immunity; others want to turn the levers of government power against the government’s own law enforcers. In the Gonda constituency in Uttar Pradesh, for example, voters had their choice among a host of criminals, including Brij Bhushan Saran Singh (16 pending criminal cases), Rizwan Zaheer (23 pending criminal cases), and Dr Mohammad Umar (only one pending criminal case).

Recognizing the increasing corruption in politics, civil society groups throughout India decided to fight back. A group of concerned citizens persuaded the Indian Supreme Court in 1999 to order candidates for public office to file disclosure affidavits with the Election Commission (EC), and the EC in turn made these documents available to the public. For the first time, India’s voters now have access to information about a candidate’s criminal record, educational qualifications, and personal wealth. In several cases, the exposure of criminal backgrounds in media reporting actually pressured parties against including such candidates on their lists.

Many Indians are illiterate, and most do not have time to read through the disclosure affidavits, so civil society groups and their supporters in 12 states of India organized themselves into Election Watch teams. These teams prepared and circulated user-friendly profiles of candidates in each constituency, organized ‘meet the candidate’ sessions and extensive press briefings to publicize information from candidate disclosure forms. Despite widespread media coverage, disclosure alone has not created a level playing field, because traditional factors like caste, religion and local issues continue to drive voter choices.

More striking results came from Election Watch efforts to check the voter rolls. Surveys by one group in Andhra Pradesh of around 40,000 voters found that as many as 20-to-30% of the names contained in the state’s voter registration rolls contained errors. Election Watch groups then pressed the Election Commission to modify its method for revising registration rolls, moving the process to the village level rather than at less accessible central government offices. A series of village community meetings in the state of Rajasthan brought about 700,000 corrections (additions and deletions) in a voter list containing nearly 34 million names.

Election Watch teams also monitored the election process closely to enforce the Election Commission’s code of conduct, which establishes limits on election-related expenditures and disallows specific activities during the election campaign cycle. Typical violations include bribing voters with offerings of alcohol, clothes, and food items; misuse of government machinery by incumbent candidates to support their re-election bids; and use of hate speeches and other divisive media by candidates to vitiate the communal environment. However, the challenge of identifying and isolating violations by specific candidates in an environment in which many candidates are guilty of violations has meant that not a single candidate has yet been disqualified.

Faced with such mixed results, electoral reform activists in India are rethinking their strategies to stem corruption. Disclosures by candidates, cleaning up the voter rolls, and the close monitoring of elections are certainly important components of the electoral reform process. But it may be that a comprehensive solution to the problem of political corruption must be itself political in nature. By the time of the next national election, civil society groups themselves may provide viable political alternatives-by establishing electoral parties that emphasize ethics and principles in public life.

Vivek Ramkumar is a member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan peoples’ movement in India, and of the freedominfo.org network of openness advocates.

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