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Updated: June 13, 2013 02:21 IST

An innovation that changed the poll landscape

Navin Chawla
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The Hindu

Vulnerability mapping ensured accountability, gave visibility to the Election Commission’s work, and sent a no-nonsense message to trouble makers

The Election Commission of India has emerged, over the last 63 years, as one of our most respected institutions. Over these six decades, this constitutional body has developed new skills almost with each general election, and latterly even with each election to the State Assemblies, to remain not static but evolutionary; constantly striving to widen the inclusive and egalitarian framework, aiming thus for the widening of the voting processes.

India is a caste-based society with deeply rooted social hierarchies. However, universal adult franchise proved to be a game-changer, for each vote carries equal value. Democratic elections have enabled the traditionally marginalised groups to take the democratic route towards empowerment. Indeed, the process of democratisation of castes has turned out to be the most significant social development of 20th century India. Both political parties and individual candidates have had to accept a policy of reconciliation rather than confrontation. The constitutional provision reserving seats for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes has given them a minimum guarantee of participation in governance. From the first election itself, this worked wonders in levelling the playing field, which in turn led India to witness the growth of major leaders from the erstwhile marginalised sections occupying key elected positions in many States.

Largest liberal democracy

By virtue of holding its first national election in 1951-52, India achieved the status of the world’s largest liberal democracy. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and the other founding fathers believed universal suffrage was a necessary pre-condition, although India’s literacy level was an abysmal 16 per cent in 1947. The success of that election, which was also its first marker of equality, belied the many sceptics who felt that the electoral exercise was doomed to failure.

A natural extension of this basic approach was the inclusion of universal adult franchise with the raison d’etre that man or woman, rich or poor, upper caste or lower, irrespective of creed or religion, the voter was brought through the electoral roll on to a common platform. The age-old inequalities were, at one stroke, sought to be eliminated or at least substantially diminished by conferring political equality. This amongst other measures reflected a very enlightened, mature and significantly bold vision, particularly if we recall that in many countries different groups, especially women, had to struggle long and hard to obtain franchise.

Anticipating that the caste based social hierarchy would play a restricting role in ensuring the equality of citizenship rights in the elections, the lawmakers made specific provisions in law. Accordingly, undue influence at elections is an electoral offence under Section 171C of the Indian Penal Code. Any voluntary interference or attempt at interfering with the free exercise of any electoral right constitutes the crime of undue influence at an election. Section 123 (2) of the Representation of Peoples Act 1951 defines any direct or indirect interference with the free exercise of any electoral right as a corrupt practice. Special provisions were also made to safeguard the interests of voters belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Thus, forcing or intimidating a member of a Scheduled Caste or Tribe not to vote or to vote (for) a particular candidate or to vote in a manner other than that provided by law is an offence under Section (3) (1) (v) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Notwithstanding these legal provisions, almost every election after Independence witnessed violence, threats and intimidation of SC voters. Reporting on the Indian elections a journalist of Associated Press was to write:

“Armies formed by local politicians have intimidated villages during every election in the underdeveloped farmland of northern India ... on election day, hired thugs prevent many voters from reaching polling stations. Other voters arrive to find their ballots have already been cast” (Arthur Max, “Private Armies,” Associated Press, April 12, 1996)

The conduct of elections in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, has always been one of the Commission’s biggest challenges, given its size and social complexities. While preparing for the 2007 Assembly elections, the Commission used technology and its now computerised rolls to find out which areas (townships, villages and tolas) had not voted for long periods in previous elections. This gave us many valuable insights on how to approach this mammoth problem.

Our preparation began with a bye-election to the Aurai Assembly in December 2005. During the campaign period, voters from the weaker sections complained to the Election Observer that in the past they had difficulties in accessing the polling stations due to intimidation by local musclemen. The observer brought this to the notice of R. Balakrishnan, then Deputy Election Commissioner in charge of Uttar Pradesh. On the forenoon of the poll day, the observer noticed that in one particular polling station, voters from the weaker sections had not come to vote. The observer went to the particular village and saw a few hundred voters being prevented by a handful of armed men from casting their votes. Taking the help of the local police, the voters were enabled to proceed to the polling station. This was the observer’s report:

“Towards end of the polling, I visited a few villages where there had been complaints of stopping of Dalit voters. There appears to be some truth in such allegations. I met several Dalit voters who showed me their I cards issued by the Election Commission and complained they had been unable to vote because the dominant castes had warned them not to proceed to the polling booths. There was no intimidation in or near the polling booths as such ... No immediate remedy in this regard suggests itself, since it is not possible for the electoral officers or police to patrol the villages so intensively as to provide security/escort to every voter from his doorstep to the polling booth. The same situation would be faced even if a re-poll were to be ordered in such areas.”

DEC Balakrishnan submitted the details of these incidents to the Commission. Clearly, the traditional approach of safeguarding only the 100-metre periphery around a polling station would no longer suffice. Here then lay the genesis of a search for an institutional method to identify the areas likely to be affected by such threats as also to track the people who are likely to create such disturbances. This meant stepping out of the traditional crease to address the problem at source. A detailed concept paper emerged which the Commission endorsed. From this was born a new methodology which we named “Vulnerability Mapping,” borrowing the term from Disaster Management.

Now we aimed at the identification of habitats and segments of voters vulnerable to intimidation in the past, with a view to taking advance measures to prevent the commission of such offences. This method brought a new focus to ensure clear accountability, give visibility to institutional intervention and send a no-nonsense message about the seriousness of elections. It proved to be an effective confidence building measure.

A watershed

In the process of mapping vulnerability, the election managers during the mammoth 2007 U.P. elections identified as many as 27,831 polling stations (out of 1,10,763 polling stations spread over 403 constituencies) as “vulnerable” on the basis of past incidents and current feedback. As many as 15,000 habitats were identified as especially vulnerable. More than one lakh people were identified as potential trouble makers. Proper accountability was created within the security system to monitor them, and various preventive measures were initiated under preventive section of law.

Typically, we found that a “vulnerable” voter had to walk through areas of intimidation to cast a vote. We then created auxiliary polling stations and parked them in at the vulnerable pockets themselves. Now there was no need to walk through hostile territory. Several hundred new auxiliary polling stations proved to be a game-changer which is why I termed the 2007 U.P. election a “watershed.”

The impact was clearly visible on poll day. The ECI observers did a marvellous job. They tracked every vulnerable location. As the electoral administration had identified the potential trouble makers by name and forewarned them there against violence, there was no threat or intimidation on the poll day. The U.P. elections, for the first time in years, were violence-free. Vidya Subrahmaniam, writing in Frontline on May 19, 2007, summed it up thus:

“In Lucknow, where I start my journey, local journalists breathlessly talk about an election that has not been this free and fair in decades. They eulogise the Election Commission of India for making this possible and speak of Dalits in the remotest villages trooping out to cast their votes — in many cases for the first time since Independence. ‘This is a miracle,’ they say.”

(Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India)

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Indeed ECI is one of the most respected institutions of India. In the recent past it has won the trust of not only of people of India but also of world media. In recent elections its performance has been outstanding. But in a mature democracy like India this institution requires some more empowerment like judicial power or a tribunal which can resolve the

from:  Prafulla Kumar Rai
Posted on: Jun 17, 2013 at 16:36 IST

Wonderful article by Mr.Navin, beautifully outlining the innovative intervention being applied by ECI in making elections accessible to the marginalized voters. Good to hear about such stories where the institutions are working independently & doing their role justly.

Still, there is a high need of lot more of such interventions to ensure that voters across nations are brought into the polling mainstream voters. Hope the ECI continues to spearhead such initiatives & brings real change in our country.

from:  Prashant
Posted on: Jun 14, 2013 at 13:03 IST

The Indian Election Commissions (ECs) have been doing Herculean tasks.
They were improving & evolving much; thru their efforts the poor and
down trodden have a voice. The former Chief Election Commissioner told
the story of hard, complex and exhausting work of the ECs. The mammoth
task of the ECs may be imagined from the more than one hundred
thousand polling stations in the state Uttar Pradesh & one forth
thereof were vulnerable to about one lakh (100,000) trouble makers.

In spite of the efforts every five years or less since 1951, India has
600-800 million poor & millions of malnourished children. The Indians
bear the costs that are more than that of US presidential elections!
Sri. Jayaprakash Narayan IAS (resigned) summarised the problem: Thru
elections the players are changed, but Indians get poor governments;
unless the rules of the game are changed, the results will not
change’. He is founder of NGO Lok Satta in AP & has been fighting for

from:  Abraham Karammel
Posted on: Jun 14, 2013 at 02:53 IST

This is one of positive and exceptional story of India’s tryst with
democratic destiny. Way the Election Commission is evolving with each
passing election is a matter great pride to every Indian. I would dare
say one of the positive result of solid foundation laid by successive
giants of India society from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Gandhiji. These
towering greats, having been exposed and adopted British culture, were
able forged a pan Indian nation much to the chagrin of British colonial
masters. British could only watch helplessly their careful political
calculus of what they intended and what they were able achieve often
very opposite. That the Election Commission of India has emerged, as
one of our most respected institutions, is the indicative of the
process of the re-emergence of a nation to occupy its rightful place in
the modern world, shrugging off million pin pricks of insignificant but
much publicized disputes.

from:  N.G. Krishnan
Posted on: Jun 13, 2013 at 12:08 IST

Ever-evolving nature of Election Commission has made it a prestigious and respectable institution on which the Indian democracy is flourishing. Acknowledging it is desirable. However, the feeling of complacency should not be endorsed. Looking into the growing complexities due to increase in variety of interests, the institution should keep on focusing on innovative solutions proactively. Long term target can be of making voting process online combining it with the unique identification number of individuals along with ensuring it to be foolproof. This can enable every electorate to vote freely and fairly and thus the real meaning of democracy can be realized.

from:  Santosh Kumar
Posted on: Jun 13, 2013 at 11:30 IST

EC is one of the prestigious institution in India. It has done
commendable work in conducting election process peacefully and ensured
participation of maximum voters in the process. The result can be seen
from the increasing number of vote cast in every ongoing election.
There are less reports of booth capturing now. EC should strive
towards technological advancements. For instance, when Adhar card is
issued to all, EC can use bio metric database of UID and can use it in
identification of voter present at the time of voting rather than
signing on the voters sheet which can be manipulated. Use of
technology is now would be EC's main weapon in conducting fair and
peaceful elections.

from:  Akshay Dhadda
Posted on: Jun 13, 2013 at 10:19 IST

It's heartening to know that the EC does not merely strive to follow its duty in letter but also in spirit.

from:  Pandian
Posted on: Jun 13, 2013 at 08:24 IST

As a Canadian of Indian background, I compliment the Election Commission for the great job they do in ensuring 'free and fair' elections, in a country with over 1 billion people. What is truly remarkable is that access to many areas are almost impossible, poverty and backwardness in large sections poses challenges and yet within a few days of voting, the country elects a new Government. The whole world watched a super power(US), unable to confirm a President, days after the election! The use of Electronic voting machines has now become a worthy export and so has the expertise of the Election Commission and its Officers.One reason to be a proud Indian!

from:  sridhar
Posted on: Jun 13, 2013 at 05:24 IST

This is wonderful and I am very
thankful to Mr. Navin. Before when I used to watch only TV, where people
like Mr. Navin do not get to speak much, I had only one impression that
almost everyone in government is fake. And I had no chance to meet or
hear someone like Mr. Navin. I am very proud of the achievement of ECI
and wish it best for future.

from:  Abdul Wahid Khan
Posted on: Jun 13, 2013 at 03:35 IST
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