Yes, if this means the absence of booth-capturing and direct physical coercion. But not quite, if we adopt a more expanded and more enriched concept of what constitutes voter freedom, says Yogendra Yadav

There is still a long way to go in ensuring a truly level playing field for parties and candidates

As we enter into the final week of the electoral dead-heat, a basic question: was this election free and fair? If this question has not made the headlines in the last one month, it is a tribute to the improvement in the manner in which elections are conducted. Gone are the days of colourful reports of large-scale booth capturing or other forms of rigging. In this respect, no news is indeed good news.

While this praise is well deserved, it runs the risk of making us lose sight of an even more fundamental question. Is this positive assessment a function of our narrow definition of what constitutes a ‘free and fair’ election?

If freedom is merely lack of physical coercion, then it is reasonable to suggest that Indians exercise their voting rights freely. There are still some exceptions. There are serious allegations of coercion in Darjeeling, and other places in West Bengal, and in the Outer Manipur constituency. It is hard to believe that citizens living in fear under the shadow of the Maoists and security forces in the Salwa Judum area of Chhattisgarh exercised their franchise freely. At the same time, we must take note of the absence of similar reports from Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, and Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh and, above all, from the Kashmir valley. The Election Commission and the entire machinery working under it deserve credit for the intelligent scheduling of phases, for the careful deployment of security forces, and for sending out tough signals.

But we need to expand and enrich this excessively narrow definition of voter freedom. A free election does not merely involve the absence of direct physical coercion, but also the absence of the possibility of such coercion. A free election means the lack of fear. The lack of freedom can have many shades to it.

Landless Dalits who live under perpetual fear of their landlords will not suddenly become free on the day of voting, except in places where the Bahujan Samaj Party or other Dalit parties are active. Ethnic or religious minorities – for example, the Muslims in Gujarat, the Christians in Orissa and the Chakmas in Mizoram – may not have voted under truly free conditions. The dread of the security forces in Kashmir, the possibility of caste violence in Bihar and the omnipresence of ‘The Party’ in West Bengal point to curtailment of freedom.

The Election Commission’s special attention to such groups, with the help of ‘vulnerability mapping,’ was a welcome initiative. But such an exercise cannot alter the everyday equations of power in an area or constituency.

Our electoral rolls continue to be faulty, seriously so in urban centres; but they are not skewed in a way to systematically exclude some section of the population or the supporters of a party. We have just redrawn the boundaries of most constituencies, a highly contentious exercise in any democracy. While the exercise left a lot to be desired, almost no party alleged that the delimitation was partisan.

Identity proof

Voter impersonation has come down, thanks to the requirement of identity proof and now photo electoral rolls. The Electronic Voting Machine has eliminated the possibility of fraud at the counting centre. Rigging in all its forms has not come to an end, but even diehard cynics will not claim that the electoral outcome will change in more than a dozen out of the 543 constituencies because of rigging.

Some of the credit for this must go to the Election Commission, one of the few institutions that gained in power, credibility and stature over the last two decades. This election was a test of the institutional depth of the EC, as the unseemly war between the former and current Chief Election Commissioners and allegations of partisanship against the current CEC had left the EC with an image problem.

The government could have salvaged the situation by appointing the new Commissioner, a delicate decision in the middle of a general election, in consultation with the Leader of Opposition. It did not. Yet the Election Commission appears to have survived this general election without losing its moral authority. On balance, the EC’s handling of the obvious violations of the Code of Conduct was firm and even handed. No matter what its composition, the EC as an institution wishes to be seen to be neutral. That is good news for democracy.

However, there is still a long way to go in ensuring a truly level playing field for all candidates and parties. As in the recent elections, the EC allowed the tunnelled vision of the Indian middle class to shape its initiatives in some respects. Much of its energy was spent in pursuing relatively small infringements of the letter of the law while remaining a mute spectator to the gross violation of the spirit of fair play.

The EC and its observers demanded loads of paper work from candidates (including a daily account of expenditure in the middle of a campaign), required written permission for every poster or banner (one letter each from every house where a poster is to be pasted), strictly enforced the timing of meetings (leading to mid-sentence termination of speeches) and insisted on written permission for each campaign vehicle (including bicycles!). The sight of politicians being made to submit to some authority may gladden some hearts, but it is hard to see how this contributes substantially to a fairer election.

Election spending

All that these well-meaning curbs have done is to push the expenditure underground. Stories of the quantum of election expenditure in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh are simply shocking. This phenomenon is not confined to the rich States: crores of rupees were spent by candidates in the Orissa Assembly election. Nor is big money the preserve of big parties: some BSP candidates are believed to have spent Rs. 30 to 40 crores in UP. No wonder that most parties seek ‘resourceful’ candidates.

An analysis of the affidavits of all candidates in the first four phases by National Election Watch shows that the proportion of ‘crorepatis’ (those who have declared assets of more than Rs.1 crore) has increased from nine per cent in 2004 to over 16 per cent this time. Among the major parties, this proportion is alarmingly high: 60 per cent for the Congress, 42 per cent for the BJP, and 30 per cent for the BSP. Only the Communists parties seem to be free of this malaise.

Similarly, the EC’s curbs on the media are misplaced. The big new initiative this time was a ban on exit polls in between various phases of polling. Though it is doubtful whether the ban is legally sustainable, there seems to be a rationale behind it — namely, the irresponsible and non-transparent use of opinion polls by an immature industry unwilling to regulate itself. But it is not clear if this ban, like most other bans, achieved very much. This gave rise to speculative reporting, to surrogate polls passing off as ‘analyses’, to the circulation of many confidential exit polls, and to the acquisition of a new respectability for satta market rates. This ban is further confirmation that there is no substitute for media self-regulation.

In one respect, some kind of regulation of the media, internal or external, was badly needed. The restrictions on public campaigns led to more and more money being invested in the media. The EC has allowed political advertising on television — this has had far reaching negative consequences for democracy in much of the global north — without so much as a national debate on this question. Surrogate political advertisements — advertisements issued by parties or candidates in the name of some front organisations — were largely unchecked.

This time, there was a large scale use of ‘news advertisements’ — advertisements by parties or candidates that appear on the news pages and look like news. There were widespread complaints that political advertisements of this kind were also linked to news coverage and that those candidates who did not offer such advertisements were simply blacked out. This gross violation of journalistic ethics does not appear to have attracted the attention to the Election Commission.

If we take the ideal of free and fair elections seriously, we need to move beyond a back-slapping celebration of the success of our democracy. We have long crossed the stage of seeking external certification. As a mature democracy, it is incumbent upon us to look below the surface and for effective ways of tackling the deeper flaws revealed during this election.

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