Representational Image. Image Courtesy: India Today
So the great election fever has resulted in exit polls and television pundits have been shouting themselves hoarse. Regardless of who wins tomorrow, I want to state that in this election, the real losers are the people of India.
I remember once telling a fellow American student in the Unted States that if he hadn’t seen India, he hadn’t seen the world. He looked at me baffled as I explained to him that the USA was only the richest democracy in the world, while my country—India—was the largest and the most amazingly diverse. Yet I am not sure I can boast about our democracy today as one recovers from a long, unseemly election, full of hate-speech, polarisation, and institutions looking the other way if the offender is a VIP (Very Important Person)
In a democracy, a political party and its partners can win but what is integral to the spirit of democracy is the integrity of its institutions, they have to be fair and perceived as fair. Elections are about upholding the liberal spirit that underpins the constitutional values, not about going through the motions or bypassing them as irrelevant.
It is indeed strange that the opposition parties had to go to the Supreme Court to see that the Election Commission of India (ECI) implements the Model Code of Conduct for those who are in important positions of power but are violating it. In a democracy everyone is supposed to be equal.
Then Rule 49 MA in the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 (read with Section 177 of the Indian Penal Code) unjustifiably punishes or threatens to punish voters who complain about the wrong choice displayed in the VVPAT system. The testing method outlined is itself is rather arbitrary as it is highly unlikely that the wrong choice displayed during the voting process would be repeated again in the test vote; if indeed the machine is malprogrammed to misattribute the vote at random or other intervals. Moreover the test also forces the voter to make his or her vote public and has a chilling effect; for who will complain if they can be incarcerated?
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Also when I went to cast my own vote, the polling officers were not displaying their ID cards in the polling booth. When I physically turned their cards around to display, they lamely said, “ulta ho gaya” (it got turned over). I told them, “If you are telling the nation what to do, you should display your ID.” Then when I went behind the screen to cast my vote, I heard a beep after casting my vote but I did not see my VVPAT. The lady by the table said, ‘Ho gaya’ (it’s done) and my finger was inked before I went behind the screen to cast my vote, not after the event. What I am saying is this: many niceties are being bypassed and if one is threatened with incarceration, who can speak up? Is this democratic conduct?
Besides, in a country where so many of our rural poor are not conversant with machines, the machine itself can have an intimidating effect.
I was recently present at a socially purposeful meeting held by ‘Jan Sarokar’ and ‘Count Every Vote’ platform, where many former Chief Election Commissioners including SY Quraishi and Navin Chawla spoke. Several electoral issues were discussed by Justice Madan Lokur, Jayati Ghosh, Vipul Mudgal and others: the ECI has decided to not count VVPATs of 98 per cent of polling stations. At present, the ECI only counts VVPAT’s of 5 polling stations per assembly segment — that is, 2 per cent of the total assuming an average of 25 polling stations in an assembly segment. ‘In fact, it is the paper slips (VVPATs) verified by the voters, which are the citizens’ votes and not the input received in an unverifiable, opaque machine. EVMs are only a mode of casting votes and ought not to be considered the vote itself’.
Frankly, I feel that the opposition’s demand that 100 per cent of the VVPAT be counted is a valid one, even if it delays the result by several days. So what? The future of India is being decided and it is unfortunate it has been called ‘ridiculous’.
Also the ECI currently does not have any rules in case there is a mismatch between EVM and VVPAT count. It does not count the VVPATs in all polling booths, even when there is a discrepancy between EVM counts and VVPAT counts in the randomly chosen sample. This is also not exactly in keeping with our democratic tradition.
In a study done by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala and published in their book, ‘The Verdict’, they have revealed a huge discrepancy in the number of women in the census and those registered on the electoral rolls. As many as 21 million women — and this is a huge number — are missing from the electoral rolls.
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As per a Right To Information (RTI) report obtained by an NGO named Swechha, mass deletion of voters’ names is done using a software and without door to door verification while the ECI laws forbid the use of any software for preparing electoral rolls. The Telangana assembly election Chief Electoral Officer admitted on record about the serious lapse which led to massive voter deletion. A study by a group led by Khalid Saifullah in March 2019 also noted many Muslims and Dalits missing from voter rolls.
While the entire nation reeled under the effects of demonetisation, which had been vaunted as destroying black money, why is it that we do not know the source of the electoral bonds? The voter is entitled to full disclosure, he or she is entitled to know who is funding the individual or party he or she is voting for. Anything less is keeping the voter in the dark.
However, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government will give this information to the EC in a sealed cover on May 27. With all due respect, however, the people of India have already voted and the results will be out by May 23 itself.
If India is to survive, democracy must thrive. We must have robust institutions with individuals that command respect for their free, fair and independent conduct. We must have a transparent way to fund elections and we must set up a body that will fund elections.
We also need to have transparency in the appointment process in institutions such as the ECI, CBI, Prasar Bharti and bodies that govern the actual running of democracy. Democracy is about having a voice and allowing it to be heard, not being bullied into silence and acceptance.
Regardless of whosoever wins, he or she is bound to serve under the Constitution and not to govern us. There is no such thing as a perfect democracy but surely the people of India deserve the democratic spirit to grow and prosper and not be scuttled and bypassed. We want an authentic democracy and not a procedural one in which you have an election only in name.
The Parliament is a hall of mirrors that reflects the aspirations of the most diverse people in the world from different regional states, and the social and economic backgrounds are so varied that it is virtually indescribable. This has been India’s strength; do not try to create one mirror image, for that will be a distortion of the reality of India.
Also, in India, we have a first-past-the-post system and not proportional representation. What about those who voted for others who did not get the majority? The Parliament is supposed to represent the rights and values of all. It can’t be brute majorityism, so let me address the winner of tomorrow: do tread softly and serve, because this is India and you can’t put down a billion people for long.
The people of India will rise!
Sagari Chhabra is an award-winning author and film director.