What should have been a moment of voters’ pride, as the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Monday pulled off yet another miracle in concluding a nine-phase, five-week long mammoth exercise to elect 543 members to the 16th Lok Sabha, turned out to be mildly problematic. It came on top of the frenzied protests and rallies by the key political players over the past week in Varanasi, which was part of the 41 Parliamentary constituencies that voted last — 18 seats in Uttar Pradesh, 17 in West Bengal and six in Bihar. As a concomitant, in the high-stakes battle in the ancient pilgrim town, where the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi is pitted against Ajai Rai of the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party leader, Arvind Kejriwal, streaks of emotive exuberance and controversy were not entirely unexpected. While the ECI was quick to respond by rushing the Tamil Nadu Chief Electoral Officer, Praveen Kumar, to oversee the electoral process in Varanasi, the bout of intense pre-poll violence ahead of the last phase of election in West Bengal and on polling day was even more worrying, with scores injured in clashes mainly between workers of Trinamool Congress and CPI(M). Overall, the relatively higher turnouts in all the phases of the 2014 general election were comforting, though there were still pockets of low voter-response.
True, even on the last day of polling, the ECI had to take action for violations of the ‘Model Code of Conduct’ — as in the case of Ajay Rai for sporting his party’s symbol as he went to the polling booth. The poll body also faced an unusual endurance test in largely urban Bengal, where it reportedly deployed over 500 companies of Central forces for just 17 constituencies. The previous phase witnessed violent incidents as well, including in Bihar, and in coastal Andhra Pradesh where Assembly elections were held simultaneously before the State’s formal bifurcation. However, this election will stand out for some of its unique features — the ‘None of the Above (NOTA)’ option being incorporated in the Electronic Voting Machines, candidates asked to fill in all columns in their affidavits, and the Railways doing a commendable job in moving polling materials and security personnel in time across the country. Above all, this election, for all the heat and dust it raised, has signed off with an enduring metaphor of Indian democracy itself — 97-year-old Shyam Negi in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, the first Indian to vote in free India in October 1951, again casting his vote along with his 92-year-old wife, Hira Mani on May 7 — to keep alive the flame of freedom. Overall, the ECI deserves a great deal of appreciation for a job well done.