The need for a ‘totaliser’ revolution

One doesn’t get a clear sense from the official statements of various political parties if they unequivocally welcome the recent Supreme Court directive to the government to take a final decision on introducing ‘totaliser’ machines for mixing votes from various booths before counting. The machine, which is connected to the control unit of electronic voting machines (EVM) after polling, gives out an overall, not booth-wise result. While the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party have welcomed the directive, the Left has supported the move in principle but cautioned for a limited and staggered use before full roll-out.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the contrary, has expressed reservations citing the fact that booth-wise performance is important for parties to devise booth-management strategies. The party’s stand is understandable as besides other factors, one factor which contributed to its massive victory during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections was its effective strategy of booth management, identity being a very strong variable in devising the booth-level strategy. A big team of BJP workers, along with workers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, worked hard at the booth level to mobilise voters — what is popularly termed as “booth management”. What is surprising to note is the opposition to this move by parties such as the Trinamool Congress and Pattali Makkal Katchi, whose workers have been victims of intimidation in the past at the hands of workers of other political parties.

Battle of the booths

When votes are counted at the booth level, the parties and candidates get a fair sense of who voted for them or not, which helps them in planning strategy at the booth level for the next electoral battle. If booth-level results are used for this limited but useful political purpose, there is no harm in continuing with the present practice of booth-wise counting of votes. But the numerous instances of prepoll intimidation and post-poll reprisal by candidates and political parties of voters at the booth level in recent years have necessitated the need for a ‘totaliser’. Booth-level results have been often used by losing candidates to harass voters of specific villages or castes/communities which voted against the candidate. As such, the Supreme Court’s decision in this direction is a welcome step. But the question is, will ‘totalisers’ really adversely affect political parties in devising a booth-level strategy before and during elections?

The mixing of votes of different polling booths, per se, should not hamper political parties from devising booth-level mobilisation strategies. Parties and candidates contesting elections anyway have a fair sense of the social composition of voters of specific booths because of information collected by local party workers. Poll surveys also give a good sense of which party a particular community is leaning towards ahead of an election. Empirical evidence suggests that voters have a fair sense of which party cares for the interests of their caste and community. All this information is sufficient to help parties and candidates devise booth-level political management strategies even without booth-level results. Of course, the efficiency of the booth-level strategy is a function of the financial and human resources at a party’s disposal but in theory, the information available is equal.

The EVM precedent

When votes are counted booth-wise using EVMs, it is not as if candidates know which way each voter voted, but they can get an overall sense of which caste or community largely voted for or against them. The ‘totaliser’ may not completely eliminate the possibility of victimisation of voters, but it will nonetheless go a long way towards maintaining the basic principle of secrecy of votes.

In elections, the workers of a political party play an important role in booth management, which includes devising a strategy of mobilising voters, motivating them, and facilitating their arrival at the polling station to cast their ballot. Most parties use caste as an important variable for booth-level management, i.e. having workers as far as possible from the same castes managing the booth as the dominant castes of voters in that particular booth. It is a strategic exercise all political parties engage in but few acknowledge.

Given the social diversity of Indian voters and the frequency of elections at various levels, there is no harm in revising the rules of conduct of elections if the need arises. The introduction of the ‘totaliser’ would be a move forward. Some parties may have reservations about its use initially, but in due course of time they would realise the importance of this new, simple but immensely useful technology. After all when EVMs were introduced, there were many sceptics; their utility for such a vast country as India is now beyond dispute.

Sanjay Kumar is a Professor and currently the Director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. Views are personal.

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2021 11:07:22 PM |

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