Election Commission of India | Hand-holding Indian democracy

From the first general election held in 1951-52 in which 17.5 crore Indians, largely illiterate, voted to the elections to the 18th Lok Sabha that are under way, the constitutional body has evolved and matured along with Indian democracy over the decades

Published - April 21, 2024 01:06 am IST

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The year was 1951. On one hand was a nation basking in its newly independent status; on the other, a people ravaged by Partition.

The new nation, though, was ready for its first tryst with democracy and at the centre of it was a constitutional body called the Election Commission of India (ECI), established on January 25, 1950, which was then headed by a single person.

India’s first Chief Election Commissioner Sukumar Sen possibly had the toughest task on his hand. An electorate largely illiterate, nascent voter rolls, people living in refugee camps without addresses, only letters and post cards as means of communication and, of course, no ballot boxes. But the new democracy, which decided to give universal suffrage to all above 21 years of age, held its first general election from October 1951 to February 1952, and 17.5 crore Indians exercised their franchise.

Fifty-three registered political parties slugged it out. The polls were held in 68 phases. “The best thing which happened was the first time,” is how former Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat sums up the ECI’s journey over the past 74 years.

As India began voting to elect its 18th Lok Sabha, there have been myriad questions on suitability of the decisions made by the ECI. But what cannot be debated is its position as the bedrock of the electoral system and the role it has played over the years as Indian democracy matured.

The journey of the poll body can be traced alongside the many electoral reforms that India incorporated in the more than seven decades after holding the first election. Possibly the most crucial one was the switching from individual coloured ballot boxes for each candidate to ballot papers and then the Electronic Voting Machines.

The EVMs, which have now become a contentious subject, had been hailed as a convenient and fast method for voting as well as an antidote to the phenomenon of “booth capturing”, which had emerged as a major challenge during the late 1960s and early 1970s. “The ECI stepped in and then Chief Election Commissioner S.L. Shakdhar proposed the EVM in 1977. A Hyderabad-based PSU called the Electronics Corporation of India Ltd (ECIL), under the Department of Atomic Energy, developed a machine prototype in 1979”, says former CEC N. Gopalaswami. It was used for the first time in 1982, in the Assembly constituency of Paravur in Kerala in 50 out of 123 booths.

Transparency and verifiability

As parties kept casting doubts over the security of the EVMs, the ECI started exploring the possibility of introducing a Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system to increase transparency and verifiability in the poll process. In 2011, a prototype was developed and demonstrated before the ECI and its expert committee.

After multiple field trials and fine tuning, in 2013, the ECI approved the design of the VVPAT and in August 2013, the Central government notified amended Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, enabling the ECI to use VVPAT with EVMs. The VVPAT was used with EVMs for the first time in a bye-election from 51-Noksen Assembly Constituency of Nagaland.

The Gist
Among the most crucial reforms the CEC introduced were the switching from individual coloured ballot boxes for each candidate to ballot papers and then the Electronic Voting Machines
As parties raised doubts over the security of the EVMs, the ECI introduced a Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) system to increase transparency and verifiability in the poll process
A significant event in the commission’s history was the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years in 1989 as a result of which 3.57 crore citizens were added to the electoral rolls

Subsequently, the poll body through a manual stipulated that one randomly selected polling station in each Assembly segment or constituency shall undergo mandatory verification by tallying EVM votes with VVPAT slips. Later, in 2019, the Supreme Court ordered that the mandatory VVPAT verification be raised from one to five polling booths in each Assembly segment. Another significant event in the commission’s history was the lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18 years in 1989 as a result of which 3.57 crore citizens were added to the electoral rolls leading to a sizeable increase in the electorate.

However, the most defining phase of the ECI could be the tenure of T.N. Seshan as the CEC when he sought to give teeth to the implementation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), which was till then seen as a mere academic set of rules. The MCC originated in Kerala in 1960 when a small set of ‘Dos and Don’ts’ for the Assembly election were circulated. A ‘Minimum Code of Conduct’ was circulated for the political parties for the first time under the signature of the Chief Election Commissioner on September 26, 1968, before the mid-term polls for various legislative Assemblies were held in February 1969, according to Leap of Faith, a book by the poll body on the journey of Indian elections.

In 1979, the ECI, in consultation with political parties, further amplified the code, adding a new section placing restrictions on the “party in power” to prevent cases of abuse of a position of power to get undue advantage over other parties and candidates.

Mr. Seshan started implementing the MCC effectively. Indian politicians, it was jokingly said then, “feared only God or Seshan”.

It was also during his tenure that electors’ photo identity cards (EPICS) were introduced in 1993. The then CEC even threatened to cancel elections if State governments failed to distribute the EPICS before the polls, according to the book. His tenure also saw the ECI becoming a multi-member body. On October 1, 1993, M.S. Gill and G.V.G. Krishnamoorthy were appointed as Election Commissioners by then President Shankar Dayal Sharma. The move was seen by many as a bid to “clip his wings”. Though Seshan had opposed the move, the Supreme Court upheld the government’s decision to appoint the Election Commissioners.

Indelible mark

That Seshan left an indelible mark on the electoral reforms scene can be gauged by the fact that the same Supreme Court, while mooting the idea of including the Chief Justice in the appointment committee to select the Chief Election Commissioner to ensure “neutrality”, said in November 2022 that it wanted a CEC of strong character like the late T.N. Seshan who “does not allow himself to be bulldozed”. The top court’s proposed panel, which would have included the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of Opposition, though, did not fructify with the government bringing in the ‘Chief Election Commissioner and other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Act, 2023” last year, forming a selection committee, which did not include the CJI. Till then, the CEC and other ECs were appointed by the President of India.

Interestingly, the first appointments to be made under the new law were those of Gyanesh Kumar and S.S. Sandhu after the sudden resignation of Election Commissioner Arun Goel, who quit citing personal reasons in March. The Hindu had reported that he quit over apparent differences with CEC Rajiv Kumar. The other vacancy had been that of EC Anup Chandra Pandey who had retired.

Controversies, though, have not put a spanner in the works of the ECI’s pursuance of keeping the poll process up to date and voter-friendly. The launch of electronic electoral photo identity card (e-EPIC) in 2021, photo electoral rolls and home voting for people with disabilities and those above 85 years of age are just some of the initiatives.

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