LS polls: Why does this carnival take so long?

LS polls: Why does this carnival take so long?

Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the first general elections to be a crisp affair in 1951 spring but the then chief election commissioner Sukumar Sen wasn’t a man in hurry.

Sen knew he had to tread a treacherous path to ensure “the biggest experiment in democracy”, as he put it, a success. He took five long months from October 1951to successfully complete the exercise, dubbed ‘biggest gamble in history’ by veteran editor C R Srinivasan (Madras) as many illiterate voters would have voted without knowing what voting actually was.

In 1957, Sen had a system in place and managed to finish all pre-poll jobs in time despite the state reorganisation an year before, and conduct the polling in flat 18 days -- a giant leap from five months.

Times have changed and with technological innovations, one would expect that the poll jamboree to finish in a flash these days. That is not the case anymore as the days of electioneering are being stretched, more often citing security concerns. Once you cast your vote during the initial phases, your endless wait for the counting day begins, you are at the mercy of the verbal diarrhea of the leaders who lose their patience as the campaigning progresses and government offices remain in a slumber. The ordinary Indian citizens fall victim to election-time fatigue.

The duration of poll exercise has been increasing in the past three elections. While it took 28 days in 2009 (forget the time from announcement, which would be an addition of at least a month), it is taking 35 days to complete the voting process this time. One will have to wait another four days for the results.

Not long ago, the general elections were conducted in eight days but it rose to 32 days in 1999 before falling to 21 days in 2004. The four elections between 1977 and 1989 were conducted in four or five days.

Who benefits from a prolonged election? What is the cost of an endless election season? When countries that are geographically larger than India can conduct elections, sometimes, in a single day, why can’t we? Why would a voter in Assam who voted on April 7 or a voter in Kerala who voted on April 10 wait for more than a month to know who their representative is? These questions would linger on even if one agrees that the challenges for a maturing democracy are an ever-growing phenomenon.

Cynics may say that Election Commission (EC) is the lone beneficiary, as they became masters for over two months and their writ runs unquestioned. That could be over-stretching the argument but the EC’s almost fanatic insistence on longer version of the polls of late appears to be an act to take credit for a violence-free exercise. 

Staggered event

A staggered poll would mean maximum deployment of security forces and one could boast of a peaceful exercise. Take the case of Tripura. The polling was in two phases in this second smallest state of the country with a population of 36.74 lakh and just two parliamentary constituencies. This is in contrast to single-phase Assembly elections for 60 seats in February 2013 and it went off peacefully. Only the EC will be able to tell what the grave security threat was that prompted the phased polls in this state.

Security considerations and movement of troops have become a bogey for stretched election period. The gap, this time, between two phases is at least a week and with improved connectivity and mobility, one may wonder why this could not be decreased. While there is a clamour for central forces, the question remains why state forces could not be used prudently. It would save time and money.  An extended poll season would also bring stress and fatigue on the machinery, whose main job is to secure the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMS). Has the EC taken into consideration the stress on already stressed out paramilitary forces guarding the EVMs in Maoist infested states like Chhattisgarh where the poll exercise ended on April 24 but have to wait for another 22 days for counting?

Things are not great for big states either. Polling in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar were spread between April 10 and May 12, the final day of elections. These states were virtually shut down. There, an official could not even sanction repairing of a badly damaged road for all these days. The economic impact of a staggered poll is yet to be assessed but one can imagine what delay in services could mean for an ordinary citizen. The extended polls also take a toll on the parties and candidates and the quality of campaigning. The 2014 poll itself witnessed deterioration in campaign with the fatigued leaders repeating themselves and in frustration, sometimes losing the plot.

With the announcement of elections on March 5 imposing the Model Code of Conduct, the officers are also taking it as an excuse not to take decisions, which they could have taken. The administration is on a freeze for 72 days until May 16. The officers are doing poll-related work or doing nothing, fearing a reprimand from the EC. From appointment of Army chief to gas pricing, everything appears to be violation of the model code. 

Elections are conducted to form a government but a stretched election would mean the absence of government for a prolonged period. For the smooth functioning of the administration, the presence of political leadership is a necessity. With political propriety not allowing government to take major decisions in the last six months of its tenure, the job of the EC would be to finish the polls as quickly as possible and help install a new government. If it fails in it on one pretext or the other, there is no point in bragging about carrying out the biggest democratic exercise on earth. 

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