Say it with votes

It did not take India long to establish itself as one of the strongest democracies in the world after Independence. So the best way each one of us can contribute to the success of the carnival is to get out of our houses on election day and cast our votes

When India first went to polls in 1951-52, barely four years after Independence, almost the entire world reacted with scepticism. How could this caste-ridden, socially and economically-backward country with an illiteracy rate of 85% have the maturity to elect its own government after being under British rule for 200 years?

Many said democracy was not suited for India, but the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, would not agree. He set up the Election Commission of India in 1950 and insisted that polls be held without delay, a task that seemed almost impossible considering the geographic expanse and huge population of the country. But the first election commissioner, Sukumar Sen, would work against virtually insurmountable challenges and conquer all odds to give wings to Nehru’s dreams. No doubt, eminent historian Ramachandra Guha in his masterpiece India After Gandhi describes the elections as “The biggest gamble in history.”

Unlike the West that had initially excluded the working class and women from electoral rolls, India adopted the system of universal adult suffrage through secret ballot where all citizens who had attained the age of 21 could cast their votes irrespective of caste, colour, creed, sex or social status.

The voting age has now been reduced to 18 years. The Election Commission undertook a massive door-to-door enrolment drive supported by a campaign through radio and films, leading to the registration of a whopping 170 million voters.

Interestingly, the names of about 2.8 million women voters had to be struck off the rolls because they refused to give their real names, preferring to describe themselves as someone’s wife or daughter. Sukumar Sen’s tough stand would play a major role in the emancipation of women and give them their own identity in due course.

Outreach

Given the large spread of the county, political parties had a tough time reaching out to the voters, especially in the absence of television or social media. While All India Radio (AIR) had imposed a ban on political campaigning, the communists had access to airwaves through Radio Moscow.

Elections were simultaneously held to the parliament and to state assemblies, across about 2.24 lakh voting booths, for 4,500 seats. As a majority of the voters were illiterate and could not recognise the party or candidate by name, each booth had a series of ballot boxes with the symbol of the party stuck on them. The voter had to merely drop the ballot paper in the box of his choice.

Elections were first conducted in Chini (now Kalpa), Himachal Pradesh, in October 1951, much ahead of the rest of the country as the village would be cut off from the world due to snowfall in the coming months.

The first person to vote, Shyam Saran Negi, who turns 103 this July, has exercised his franchise in all the general elections since Independence.

By the end of the electoral process in February 1952, nearly 45% had voted, winning accolades from across the globe. As Guha recalls in his book, Nehru came in for praise for his decision not to follow other Asian leaders “in taking the line of least resistance by developing a dictatorship with centralisation of power and intolerance of dissent and criticism”, while the voters were hailed as the real heroes of democracy.

Neighbouring Pakistan, which attained freedom from the British along with India, on the other hand, has had a chequered history. The first elections were scheduled for 1959, but president Iskander Mirza abrogated the Constitution, imposed martial law and handed over power to General Muhammad Ayub Khan, the commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army. Ayub Khan in turn deposed Mirza, became the president, and promoted himself to the rank of field marshal. Elections were finally held in 1970 and 1973, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became the first prime minister under a new Constitution, until he was dismissed and ultimately hanged to death by military dictator Zia-ul-Haq.

Pakistan has been under military rule for most of its history and only two elected governments — 2008 to 2013 and 2013 to 2018 — have completed their full terms. No prime minister has ever remained in office for a full term of five years.

Perhaps, the only silver lining was that Benazir Bhutto as the prime minister in 1988 became the first elected woman to head a Muslim country. India had its first lady prime minister in Indira Gandhi, way back in 1966. The first ever female prime minister of the world was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, who took over in 1960. Queen Elizabeth II of United Kingdom, though unelected, who ascended the throne in 1952 at the age of 25, is the longest-serving living monarch. Though the United States held its first elections in 1788-89, it has not had a single woman president to date.

 

 

While it did not take India long to establish itself as one of the strongest democracies in the world within a short span after Independence, free and fair elections have been elusive in many other nations. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe held power for about 37 years from 1980, and at the age of 93 declared that he would remain in power “until God says come”. He was thrown out in a coup in 2017 after intense speculation that he was planning to install his unpopular wife Grace Mugabe as his successor.

In Libya, elections were held in the 50s and 60s, but Muammar Gaddafi, who overthrew the ruling kingdom and held sway from 1969 to 2011, banned all political parties, reducing polls to a sham. He also abolished the Constitution and replaced it with the Green Book which was based on his own political philosophy.

North Korea has developed its own brand of elections where all seats are unanimously won by the ruling Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland. There is only one name on the ballot paper, that of the Front-nominated candidate. Voters opposed to the candidate may cross out the name, but it should be done under the watchful eyes of the election officers. This is a risky proposition as voting against the official candidate is considered an act of treason and can attract retribution from the powers-that-be. Voting is compulsory and the turnout is usually close to 100%.

Cuba is a one-party state where the Constitution recognises only the Communist Party of Cuba. Candidates for the National Assembly are selected by commissions chaired by local trade union leaders. Though the ballot paper has only one name, the candidate should obtain at least 50% of the votes to be elected. However, this remains only on paper as so far no candidate has failed to obtain the mandated percentage of votes.

In India, every single government since Independence has been democratically elected.

Since the country follows a multi-party parliamentary system of democracy, members are directly elected by the people from 543 constituencies from across the country to the Lok Sabha, or the lower house. The MPs, in turn, elect the prime minister. A party or alliance should have a minimum of 272 members to form the government, that is one plus the half-way mark.

Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) were used for the first time in place of ballot papers in 1997. In 2004, ballot papers were completely phased out. In 2014, the Election Commission introduced Voter Verified Paper Audit Trial (VVPAT), a paper slip that enables the voter to verify if the vote cast by him has been recorded correctly. If the voter is not satisfied with any of the contesting candidates, he has the option of pressing the NOTA (None Of The Above) button.

In order to prevent multiple voting by a single individual, indelible ink is applied on the finger of every voter. The State-owned Mysore Paints and Varnish Ltd is the sole supplier of the ink to the Election Commission.

The 2019 general elections, the biggest in the history of India, spread across 29 states and seven union territories with about 900 million voters — 15 million in the 18-to-19 age group — will be held in seven phases.

In Karnataka, elections for the 28 seats will be conducted in two phases on April 18 and 23. The results will be declared on May 23. The elections are such a massive exercise that about 10 lakh polling booths will be set up. Over 350 political parties will be in the fray.

The highest polling station will be at Tashigang, located at an altitude of about 15,000 feet in Himachal Pradesh. Situated close to the China border, the booth covers two villages, Tashigang and Gete, and has only 48 voters. Until 2014, the settlement of Hikkim, at about 14,000 feet, was the highest polling station.
One polling booth that consistently records 100% voting is at Banej Village in the middle of Gir forest, which has a single voter, Mahant Bharatdas Darshandan, a temple priest nearing his 70s. With the nearest polling station 120 km away, special arrangements are made for this voter as election rules state that no citizen should ordinarily travel more than two km to reach the booth. Thus, during every election, polling staff accompanied by security personnel take a bumpy ride into the middle of this lion habitat to set up a booth so that this lone voter can exercise his franchise.

Social media is expected to play a major role in these elections considering that over half a billion people have access to the internet, that translates to more than the entire population of many countries.

However, when it comes to the representation of women in the lower house, India’s track record is dismal. With less than 12% representation in the current Lok Sabha, India ranks 149th among 193 nations on the percentage of women in the lower house.

The highest number of women MPs were elected from West Bengal in 2014. Rwanda stands No 1 in the world with the most number of women in parliament. Its lower house has 63% women, followed by Cuba at 53%. Pakistan with 20% ranks better than India.

Though political parties in India have for decades been promising a 33% quota for women, it is yet to materialise. The United Nations regards 30% as the minimum level necessary for women to influence decision-making in Parliament.

The story of Indian elections is not complete without a mention of Hottepaksha Rangaswamy from Karnataka who holds the Guinness World Record for contesting the highest number of polls — 86 times, all unsuccessfully though. Rangaswamy, who floated Hottepaksha or Stomach Party, first contested the Lok Sabha elections in 1967 against the then railway minister Kengal Hanumanthaiah. In the years that followed, he contested against prime ministers Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and P V Narasimha Rao. His last contest before he died in 2017 was against former chief minister S M Krishna.

Elections are a serious affair, but officers often add some comic relief due to their overzealousness to conduct free and fair polls. Recently, astrologers in Bengaluru were told to cover the picture of the palm on their display boards as it might influence the voters. In another case, a temple was ordered to hide the drawing of lotus which was part of the rangoli. In Andhra Pradesh, the statues of leaders long dead and gone are covered with cloth.

Indian elections are described as the biggest festival of democracy in the world, and the Election Commission, which conducts this mammoth exercise without a glitch, deserves a pat on the back. The best way each one of us can contribute to the success of this carnival is to get out of our houses on election day and cast our votes.

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Get real-time news updates, views and analysis on Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on Deccanherald.com/news/lok-sabha-elections-2019 


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