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Democracy Grande

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June 2004
Democracy Grande

Democracy Grande

Indian elections have been described as the "largest organized activity in human history". It is not just the magnitude of this exercise in democracy, but also its character, drama and lessons that have the whole world tuned in.

By MURALI KAMMA and

SIDDHARTH SRIVASTAVA

Not many would give credence to the possibility of a functional democracy in a country where the number of registered voters is more than double the entire population of the United States. Add to it other criteria such as over a dozen different ethnicities and languages, a Third-World infrastructure, a population that is vastly illiterate? and the pundits would surely laugh off the prospects for a democracy in such a country.

How can such a nation with 660-million registered voters manage to conduct a viable election? In comparison, the only surviving superpower in the world was hung on hanging chads in the 2000 Presidential election? that too in handling just about a 100 million voters.

Yet, this is precisely the kind of miracle that India pulls off with aplomb every five years. Not surprisingly Indian elections have always been on the radar of political pundits around the world. This year the enormity of the numbers was only matched by the high drama; not only of a major political upset, but also of the prospect that an Italian-born Roman Catholic woman would be the head-of-the-state of a largely patriarchal, Hindu-majority nation of a billion people!

Such are the designs of democracy coupled with the Indian masses' infatuation with dynastic politics. But lost in all this drama is the resounding salvation of democracy's most enduring appeal and promise ? the power of the people. Unlike in the U.S. and other democracies where far too often special interests and their power lobbies seem to own the show, here it was the masses ? the lowest common denominator ? who were the winners.

To be sure Indian governance is riddled with problems, from bureaucracy to corruption. This makes the average Ramu quite impotent in enjoying his civic rights in day-to-day endeavors. But this hardly takes away from the fact that the culture of democracy is firmly entrenched in the Indian ethos. Despite the low literacy levels of its electorate, it is an energized and engaged one compared to many western democracies.

One can arguably state that India's resilient democratic tradition was also the big winner in this recent election. The fact that this election took place in such a relatively smooth manner is nothing short of astonishing. Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow of foreign policy studies at Brookings Institute, is a well-known expert on South Asia. "Every time the Indians go to the polls, it's the largest organized activity in human history," he notes.

The entire process was something like a giant tarantula coming to life. There were 4700 candidates and 1214 counting centers for a total of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha (Lower House). This massive exercise was done in five phases over three weeks. Close to 5-million policemen and troops were deployed around the country, and observers were sent to monitor more than 700,000 polling stations. According to the Election Commission, the cost of the operation was around $200 million. The total polling staff numbered 3.5 million.

The trivia surrounding these elections is not only fascinating, but offers a valuable glimpse of how the whole enterprise works in the face of extreme terrains and weather, not to mention the many other logistic details. The highest polling station in the nation was located in Ladakh at an altitude of 17,000 feet. Kashmir's Anantnag-Pulwama region had the lowest turnout (16%) due a boycott called by separatists. In eastern Nagaland, where one million voters were eligible to elect just one member, the nation had its highest turnout (80%). Chaku, a polling station in the northeast, had only three eligible voters, and one presumes they all showed up. A woman from Kanpur, aged 104, was probably the oldest voter in the election.

For the first time, Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) were used in all the polling booths. This led to remarkable efficiency and accuracy. Not only were these EVMs tamper-proof while maintaining privacy, but they also eliminated manual counting. Another improvement was that the system allowed for no ambiguous results. The 1.1 million units used all over India were designed and manufactured by ECIL in Hyderabad and BEL in Bangalore. Reportedly, they have been so impressive that now other countries want to buy them from India. Singapore, Australia, Mauritius, and South Africa have already expressed an interest.

The EVM consists of an electronic ballot box and a control unit. Once the voter presses the button next to the desired candidate, a beeping sound indicates that the ballot has been cast. The polling officer then clears the unit for the next voter by pressing the ?Ballot' button. There have been several cases where voters accidentally pressed the ?Ballot' button. But this foolproof machine doesn't allow any mistakes. Fraud is also prevented because duplication or invalid voting is not possible. A ballot box can accommodate up to 16 names; but since up to 4 units can be attached to the EVM, the list can be expanded to have a maximum of 64 names in the election.

This whole process is a mammoth undertaking. About a 100 million people cast their ballots in the first phase alone. Polling stations could be found high in the mountains, on remote islands, deep in the jungles, and in arid deserts. For some of these locations, elephants, camels or mules were used to transport the EVMs. In densely populated regions, the lines were often long. It rained heavily in certain areas, but in other places the blistering heat caused problems when some people fainted. The violence was less this time but, unfortunately, not entirely absent.

After all the voting is done, the control units are taken to the counting centers from secure storage locations. The counting supervisor at the table breaks the seal before the agents of the candidates and then pushes the ?Result' button on the control unit of the EVM. In about 30 seconds the machine shows the total number of votes cast and the individual votes recorded against each candidate. The results are duly recorded on a form.

The assistant returning officer (ARO), one for each assembly segment, feeds the data into the computer and sends the forms to the returning officer (RO) of that Lok Sabha constituency. The RO makes the final calculations and the results are on their way to Delhi. The entire process is automated. At the EC headquarters, a giant server is ready to be fed details from the biggest democratic process ever. When the RO pushes the ?OK' button from anywhere in the country, the information is available online in an instant. There is also back-up for every stage of this process.

When the press in a political rival country is all praise for this exercise, one knows there can't be a more telling endorsement. Here is what Dawn, Pakistan's leading English-language daily, had to say about Indian elections, "?what is worthy of praise is the regularity with which this exercise is held. With some exceptions there are no delays, no excuses and no attempts to tamper with the process. The public accepts the credibility of the polls without demur much like it relies on a dependable brand product. These are the qualities that have won the Indian electoral exercise international recognition and presented it as a model for other states which are trying to tread on a democratic path."

For the students of democracy there is simply no parallel to studying Indian elections in general. This year, in particular, was a goldmine of classic lessons. In the end all the pollsters, politicians and pundits got it spectacularly wrong. Given the unanimous prediction everywhere of a comfortable BJP win, it turned out to be the biggest upset in Indian elections since the nation became independent in 1947. The closest comparison would be the Congress Party's unexpected defeat in 1977 after the voters rebelled against Indira Gandhi's ill-fated State of Emergency. That earlier election, with its emphatic rejection of dictatorial rule, showed that India had come of age as a democracy. This election proves conclusively that, despite all its challenges, India's strong and mature democracy truly reflects its unmatched diversity.

Recently, in The New York Times, Amy Waldman nicely captured India's noble commitment to its essentially pluralist nature. She wrote: "In a turn of events seemingly tailor-made to demonstrate India's diversity and capacity for co-existence, Mrs. Gandhi, raised a Roman Catholic, is making way for a Sikh prime minister who will be sworn in by a Muslim president, A. P. J. Kalam."

Manmohan Singh, the economist-turned-politician who started the liberalization process in the early 90s, has become India's first non-Hindu prime minister. Like some other notable observers, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati sees Singh as a highly accomplished technocrat and thinks that "there is nothing to fear as far as economic reforms are concerned." The stock market in India agreed by rallying strongly after the announcement was made.

As the world saw, this dramatic change in political fortunes did not cause any disruptions in India. Prime Minister Vajpayee graciously noted, "My party and alliance have lost, but India has won." This poet and statesman went on to point out that "victory and defeat are a part of life which are to be viewed with equanimity." So nobody doubts that India is ?Shining'. Perhaps not the way the BJP saw it, but surely in the way the world's largest democracy witnessed a peaceful transfer of power, where all the voters whether rich or poor had an equal opportunity to exercise their ballot. There have been glitches, no doubt, but the unpredictable nature of the results, including the almost unthinkable losses the BJP suffered in Gujarat, points to only one conclusion: that the elections have been by and large free and fair.

The BJP tried to re-strategize and become more inclusive, but it was too late. To his credit, the outgoing prime minister has significant achievements. These include economic liberalization, initiation of a peace process with Pakistan, the national highway project, elections in Jammu & Kashmir, and the telecom industry. One of his enduring legacies is to show how coalition governments can be stable, especially if there is a capable and well-respected leader at the helm. Even Sonia Gandhi's son, Rahul, noted that the Congress Party's success took nothing away from Vajpayee's stature.

The problem with the BJP party managers was that they tried to shove their success down the throat of every voter in India. Peace with Pakistan may be all very well, but it hardly matters to a person who doesn't see any hope in his future. The same could be said about catchy slogans such as its much-touted "India Shinning" campaign. In a recent op-ed piece, Salman Rushdie commented: "The failure of the ubiquitous ?India Shining' slogan has backfired just as, in Indira Gandhi's hour of defeat, her grandiose slogan Garibi Hatao ? ?remove poverty' ? was successfully rewritten by her opponents as Indira Hatao ? ?remove Indira'."

What the BJP ignored in the calculus of this campaign was the incredible extremes of the electorate, wherein most of the rural and poor citizens were disenfranchised out of an increasingly shining India. This campaign spoke only to the likes of a mobile phone totting MNC executive who has his own set of issues with the government. The farmer on the other hand has a completely different set of woes ? irrigation and power supply to name a couple. Finally, the masses of the rural poor were even worse off; for them, even their tattered pair of footwear was not shining.

But for all the urban folk, chatting in accented English, working in plush multinational offices and call centers, gorging McDonald's burgers over Jennifer Aniston and her friends, the real power lay elsewhere: in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar ? the states that return the maximum number of seats to Parliament. Here, most people do not speak English, there is no water, forget Pepsi, and the issues that matter are caste, religion, money and muscle-power.���

According to the Liberty Institute, an independent think-tank based in Delhi, "analysts believe that, on the whole, India's less privileged ? the rural masses and the urban poor ? appeared to have found the BJP's ?India Shining' campaign unacceptable and offensive." Ashutosh Varshney, who teaches political science at the University of Michigan, says, "There is no doubt that the Indian economy has done very well of late, but the primary beneficiaries have been the rich and the urban middle class." As he points out, the less privileged outnumber the middle classes by a big margin.

For several observers of this historic election, the ?alliance factor' is a reality check against going overboard and seeing the results as the Congress Party's victory over the BJP. The Congress gains have mostly been riding on the shoulders of regional allies. In one-to-one contests, the party fared quite miserably in the big states, except in Gujarat where the voters have voiced their distrust for Chief Minister Narender Modi's communal politics. The BJP lost heavily when two of its most powerful allies, Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh and Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, were completely wiped out. If these two had managed to win even half the assigned seats, Vajpayee would have romped home as the winner.

This is not to diminish Sonia Gandhi's victory, but to keep the correct perspective in mind that Indian politics is now about the big two, Congress and BJP, striking the right balance with allies, rather than about the individual personalities of their leaders, the way presidential elections are in the U.S.

Again, unlike American politics, the personal affairs of politicians do not generally form the subject of an electoral issue. In the recent election, though, two leading film stars of yesteryears ? Dharamendra and Hema Malini (both for BJP) ? got caught up in a controversy. To get the full picture, it should be noted that Dharamendra is married to two women; Hema Malini is his second wife. While filing their nomination papers, he mentioned his first wife's name and Malini used her husband's name. This was more than a communication gap since bigamy is illegal. Not surprisingly, the opposition made the most of this fracas. Malini refused to campaign for her husband, and Dharmendra complained that he was sick and tired of all the sleazy comments about him. Reportedly, he wished he were made a dictator so that he could remove India's problems in one stroke ? including, one would imagine, his second wife's wrath!

Moving beyond the seamy side of politics, there is a well-publicized difference between the two largest democracies in the world. Although the U.S. is widely considered a land of immigrants, naturalized citizens are barred from holding the nation's highest office. There is no such restriction in India, but the BJP did call for an amendment at various forums. As recent events showed, this is such a sensitive and polarizing issue that Sonia Gandhi chose to relinquish her claim to the most powerful job in the country.

Not long ago, The Times of India surveyed fifty constitutions and found that as many as thirty-two countries did not reserve their highest executive jobs for native-born citizens. Fourteen nations bar naturalized citizens from high office while the remaining four (including the U.S.) bar non-native-born citizens only from the presidency but not other top positions. Contrary to claims made by the BJP, most European countries, including Italy, allow all citizens to run for public office regardless of ethnicity or place of birth.

Soon after this historic election's results became known, many high-ranking officials from around the world praised India's commitment to a strong and vibrant democracy. As the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw pointed out, no one can fail to be impressed by the power of a democracy where the people can bring about a peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box. Stephen Cohen remarked, "India has, again, produced a major miracle ? one that generally goes unappreciated in the rest of the world. If only the Arab and Middle East states emulated it." Jack Straw agreed when he added, "India's pluralistic democracy is a role model for her neighbors and partners in South Asia."


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