LS Polls: Why this carnival takes so long?

Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the first General elections to be a crisp affair in 1951 spring but Chief Election Commissioner Sukumar Sen wasn’t a man in hurry. Sen knew he had to tread a treacherous path to ensure “the biggest experiment in democracy”, as he put it, a success. He took five long months from October 1951 to successfully complete the exercise, dubbed “biggest gamble in history” by veteran editor C R Srinivasan (Madras) as many illiterate voters would have voted without knowing what voting actually is. In 1957, Sen had a system in place and managed to finish all pre-poll jobs in time despite the state reorganization an year before, and conduct the polling in flat 18 days — a giant leap from five months.

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Times have changed and with technological innovations, one would expect that the poll jamboree finish in a flash these days. That is not the case anymore as the days of electioneering are being stretched, more often citing security concerns. Once you cast your vote during the initial phases, your endless wait for the counting day begins, you are at the mercy of the verbal diarrhea of the leaders who lose their patience as the campaigning progresses and government offices remain in a slumber. An ordinary Indian citizen falls victim to election-time fatigue.

The duration of poll exercise has been increasing in the past three elections. While it took 28 days in 2009 (forget the time from announcement, which would be an addition of at least a month), it is taking 35 days to complete the voting process this time. One will have to wait another four days for the results.

Not long ago, the General elections were conducted in eight days but it rose to 32 days in 1999 before falling to 21 days in 2004. The four elections between 1977 and 1989 were conducted in four or five days.

Who benefits from a prolonged election? What is the cost of an endless election season? When countries those are geographically larger than India can conduct elections, sometimes, in a single day, why can’t we? Why would a voter in Assam who voted on April 7 or a voter in Kerala who voted on April 10 wait for more than a month to know who their representative is?  These questions would linger on even if one agrees that the challenges for a maturing democracy are an ever-growing phenomenon.

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Cynics may say that Election Commission (EC) is the lone beneficiary, as they became masters for over two months and their writ run unquestioned. That could be over-stretched but the EC’s almost fanatic insistence on longer version of the polls off late appears to be an act to take credit for a violence-free exercise. A staggered poll would mean maximum deployment of security forces and one could boast of a peaceful exercise. Take the case of Tripura. The polling was in two phases in this second smallest state of the country with a population of 36.74 lakh and just two Parliamentary constituencies. This is in contrast with single-phase Assembly elections for 60 seats in February 2013 and it went off peacefully. Only the EC will be able to tell what the grave security threat that prompted the phased polls in this state.

Security considerations and movement of troops have become a bogey for stretched election period. The gap, this time, between two phases is at least a week and with improved connectivity and mobility, one may why this could not be decreased. While there is a clamour for central forces, the question remains why state forces could not be used prudently. It would save time and money.

An extended poll season would also bring stress and fatigue on the machinery, whose main job is to secure the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMS). Has the EC taken into consideration the stress on already stressed paramilitary forces guarding EVMs in Maoist infested states like Chhattisgarh where the poll exercise ended on April 24 but have to wait for another 22 days for counting?

Things are not great for big states too. Polling in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar are spread between April 10 and May 12, the final day of elections. These states are virtually shut down. There, an official could not even sanction repairing of a badly damaged road for all these days. The economic impact of a staggered poll is yet to be assessed but one can imagine what delay in services could mean for an ordinary citizen.

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The extended polls also have a toll on the parties and candidates and the quality of campaigning. The 2014 poll itself witnessed deterioration in campaign with the fatigued leaders repeating themselves and in frustration, sometimes losing the plot.

With the announcement of elections on March 5 imposing the Model Code of Conduct, the officers are also taking it as an excuse not to take decisions, which they could have taken. The administration is on a halt for 72 days until May 16. The officers are doing poll-related work or doing nothing, fearing a reprimand from the EC. From appointment of Army chief to gas pricing, everything appears to be violation of the model code.

Elections are conducted to form a government but a stretched election would mean the absence of government for a prolonged period. For the smooth functioning of the administration, the presence of political leadership is a necessity. With political propriety not allowing government to take major decisions in the last six months of its tenure, the job of the EC would be to finish the polls as quickly as possible and help install a new government. If it fails in it in one pretext or the other, there is no point in bragging about carrying out the biggest democratic exercise on earth.

(PS: The article appeared in Deccan Herald’s Panorama section on May 14, 2014)

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