Elections in this country have always been fascinating, be they at the level of Parliament or State Assemblies or local bodies. But, the principles, processes, and people behind them may not appear interesting. Yet, S.Y. Quraishi, the 17 Chief Election Commissioner (July 2010-June 2012), has demonstrated, through his work in question, that even these features can be lucidly narrated, keeping readers engrossed.
His book is not just about the poll processes or preparations for elections or legal positions but also about covering the uncovered eligible voters; using modern technology imaginatively to ensure fairness in the entire system and luring first-time voters and other sections of youth to polling booths. He has cited a number of examples from national and international experiences. Dr. Quraishi has thus sought to provide a comprehensive account of the subject.
Giving a historical background behind the establishment of the Election Commission of India (ECI), the author has also explained how the composition of election management bodies in a range of countries such as United States, Brazil, South Africa and Bangladesh is vastly different. He has hailed the decision of the Narasimha Rao government to make the ECI a multi-member body in 1993.
Dwelling upon the working of democracy in parts of Asia, he believes that Indian democracy has generated positive impact in neighbouring countries where, the author notes, “the seeds of democracy are germinating.” But, what one must keep in mind is that holding smooth elections alone will not qualify for any nation to be recognised as a true example of democracy. People, at all levels, must have inculcated the democratic spirit in them. One cannot also gloss over reports of booth capture that have resurfaced in the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections.
A striking quality of the book is that the author has cited numerous case studies to convey how initiatives taken by State-level or district-level officials have brought in qualitative changes in the poll process. For example, the practice of the poll authorities themselves distributing voter slips was based on the suggestion of the then Bihar Chief Electoral Officer Sudhir Kumar Rakesh during the 2010 Assembly elections in the northern State. It was successfully experimented and this turned out to be, in the words of Quraishi, a “game changer.” Tamil Nadu followed suit during the 2011 Assembly elections and Chief Electoral Officer Praveen Kumar had come in for widespread appreciation for a variety of reasons which included the voter slip distribution too. At that time, what was repeatedly conveyed was that either voter slips or elector photo identity cards (EPIC) would be sufficient for people to cast their votes. But, in the recent Lok Sabha polls, this rule has been altered by the Election Commission, which decided to allow a host of alternative documents too for the purpose of identification.
The author has discussed well topics such as the role of money power and the pernicious trend of paid news and yet, his account of the Commission’s voter education initiatives is more stimulating.
Even though the author has cited case studies from different states, the examples of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have been quoted more, creating an impression that the work’s portrayal suffers from inadequacy, given the size and complexity of this country.
Also, the author, in the chapter, titled “Reflections and Afterthoughts,” has talked of the negative role being played by the Constituency Development Schemes for MPs and MLAs in distorting the principle of level playing field. But, the book does not provide any clue why the EC, when headed by the author, gave its nod to the Union government’s proposal in 2011 for letting the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee to announce the hike in the MP Local Area Constituency Development Scheme from Rs. 2 crore to Rs. 5 crore.
It is not that Dr Quarishi has not referred to this episode but what he mentions, in the chapter on the model code of conduct, was that the Commission had accommodated the Centre’s last-minute request with a condition that the hike should not be given effect to in five States which were having Assembly elections then. These aspects, however, do not take away the significance of the work.