Introduced in 2007, the innovative idea of a custodian of the voter roll for every polling station has helped in the smoother conduct of the electoral process
It is a well established practice in all robust democracies that independent election management bodies are able to evolve and grow by developing and adopting good practices within the ambit of their respective constitutional powers. The Indian Election Commission (ECI) is an important example in this regard (but by no means the only one). Most people, including students today, remember the critical role that T.N. Seshan played in the evolution of the independence of the Commission in the 1990s. Over the following decades, the ECI has continued to adapt itself to changing ground realities. The evolution of the booth level officer mechanism has been one such quiet, but decisive, step forward.
Apart from a robust constitutional and legislative framework, a responsible political stake holding, an informed electorate and a vigilant media and civil society also constitute key elements, and are important prerequisites for a credible electoral democracy. It goes without saying that a neutral and efficient election management with transparent systems and procedures in place is the most critical of all.
The authors of the Constitution had the commendable foresight and wisdom to anticipate the challenges and complexities involved in the conduct of elections in a vast and diverse country like ours, and provided for an independent election management body i.e. the ECI, and made it responsible for the conduct, control and supervision of elections to Parliament and the State Assemblies, (but not panchayats and municipalities), in the process endowing it with immense powers under Article 324 of the Constitution. India’s six decades of experience has proved the efficacy of the election management framework in India.
The successful conduct of the General Election in 2009 once again demonstrated the delivery-centric institutional strength of the ECI. Preparation for error-free electoral rolls, effective control over the use of muscle and money power, prevention of misuse of official machinery and ensuring a level playing field were among the hallmarks of the free and fair election process. As we approach General Election 2014, it may be relevant to recall some of the election management strategies and initiatives which helped us in streamlining the process.
Enrolling of all eligible voters and removing the names of the dead and shifted voters from electoral rolls are two important tasks in the process of securing the fidelity of the electoral rolls. It is a well known axiom in the field of electoral management that if we do not have clean and accurate electoral rolls, we cannot deliver a clean election. As we do not have compulsory voting in our country, the enrolment of eligible voters did not always receive the attention it deserves. Besides, due to the lack of grass-root accountability, there was no focused attention paid to the process of removal of the names of bogus, dead and shifted voters from electoral rolls. As the result, the inaccuracy of rolls used to be as high as 10 per cent in some cases. The presence of names of non-existent voters in the rolls therefore offered scope for poll-day malpractices such as impersonation and bogus-voting. Often, names were repeated. With up-to-date software, we were able to easily eliminate such duplication all over the country.
The ECI deliberated and introduced a new system that we called the booth level officer (BLO) system to deal with these problems. It created a clear line of accountability for preparation of an error-free electoral roll, making the BLO its custodian at the polling booth level. So he or she became accountable for the 1,000 to 1,500 eligible voters in his or her precinct. After the usual trial and error, this evolved into near accurate electoral rolls, paving the way in turn for credible elections. During 2009 and the subsequent elections to State Assemblies, the BLOs also ensured door-to-door distribution of voter-identification slips to voters. Previously, these slips used to be distributed by the contesting candidates of various political parties and that gave scope for complaints. The preparation of accurate electoral rolls and direct distribution of voter identification slips by the BLOs also boosted voter confidence in the credibility of the election process. The positive outcome of this creative initiative was soon visible in the form of accuracy in the enrolment of new voters, as well as in the increase in voter turnout.
Within a few of years of the introduction of the BLO system in 2007 it has now become an integral part of election management. The importance of this system is evident from the fact that the Election Commission of India has released a Handbook for BLOs with elaborate guidelines and procedures to be followed.
Put to the test
We have evolved through experimentation. Our two excellent Deputy Election Commissioners at that time, R. Balakrishnan and Jai Priye Prakash, both drawn from the IAS, first tested this in a by-election and thereafter in the West Bengal Assembly elections of 2006. The system took further shape during the U.P elections (2007), where we found that the BLOs helped in preparing error free rolls, not only in removing the names of dead and shifted voters but also in maximising distribution of election cards. In subsequent elections in Gujarat and in other States, the BLOs now began to also collect photos for photo electoral rolls. By the time we came to the equally difficult elections in Delhi and in Jammu & Kashmir, a reasonably error free system was in place. Finally, we adopted the concept of the BLO system as a national exercise in the 2009 election, with very beneficial results.
The nomenclature of the BLO is not mentioned in statutory books, election laws and rules. For this is a creation of a felt need in election management, and was born out of the creative interpretation of the powers and the mandate of the ECI with its excellent team of officers. To them the credit of this innovative technique must rightly belong.
(Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India.)