How Bihar was won
January 10, 2006
The Communist Party of India-Marxist, which leads the West Bengal government, has reacted angrily to the Election Commission's recent decision to send key officials -- including K J Rao, who became a celebrity for his fearless conduct of last autumn's election in Bihar -- to the state. Provoked, CPI-M doyen and former chief minister Jyoti Basu declared that' Bengal is not Bihar.'
Election Commissioner N Gopalaswamy outlines the lessons India has to learn from the Bihar election.
The recently-concluded election to the Bihar assembly have attracted nationwide attention and appreciation because of the extraordinarily (by Bihar standards) peaceful poll, perceived to be by far the fairest in that part of the country.
A keen watcher of the electoral scene in India remarked that this poll has demonstrated that the Election Commission of India has successfully migrated over the years from macro-management at the national level to booth-level management at the field level and this change of focus has led to the success of the Commission's campaign for a free and fair poll.
Complete Coverage: The Battle for Bihar
Naturally, one would be curious to know what steps went into making this change effective. The Commission has always believed that the first prerequisite for a free and fair poll is a clean and up-to-date electoral roll. The Commission has strived to achieve this but with varying degrees of success mostly decided by the level of commitment of the staff at the field level.
What made the difference this time in Bihar was the availability of the rolls in electronic form and technology-savvy officers. It is a lot easier now to scour the rolls for duplicate names and suspicious entries.
An exercise was undertaken to compare the mid-term population figures of citizens 18 years and above with the total of voters on the electoral rolls and identify the districts, talukas and villages showing conspicuous deviation and therefore requiring intervention to closely scrutinise the rolls.
A software programme generated a list of households showing more than 10 to 15 voters and these were also verified to eliminate the names of dead and migrated voters. These were combined with the use of photo-matching software to elicit possible duplicate entries from the Electoral Photo Identity Card records, and their subsequent verification led to the deletion of 18.31 lakh (1.831 million) voters and the addition of 4.83 lakh (483,000) new voters. The net reduction amounted to three percent of the state's electorate.
Simultaneously a campaign was mounted to raise the percentage of electors covered by EPIC. The constant review and monitoring of this work paid rich dividends in raising the overall EPIC coverage from 57 percent to 84 percent for the state, with some constituencies achieving 90 to 95 percent.
It became possible for the EC to insist on the production of card as proof of identity, thus doing away with less reliable and manipulation-prone documents. It was gratifying to see on poll days, electors proudly displaying their EPIC while awaiting their turn to vote. Given the worrying law and order situation, the phasing of the election and the induction of central paramilitary forces in substantial strength were important in ensuring a peaceful poll.
A part of the force was inducted a few weeks in advance in order to sanitise some areas by conducting raids to unearth illegal firearms and nab absconding criminals. A strict monitoring of the progress in the execution of non-bailable warrants issued by the courts helped to keep a check on criminals. On poll day, the endeavour was to cover almost all sensitive polling stations with armed police -- either from the central forces or the Bihar armed police.
The designation of a polling station as sensitive is always a contentious issue between the different political parties. They try to influence the local administration and in the past there were allegations that the district administration was influenced by the government of the day or by influential politicians.
This time the Election Commission team consisting of Chief Electoral Officer Bihar N K Sinha and Deputy Election Commissioner Anand Kumar worked out a list of sensitive polling stations for each constituency using past electoral data and inputs from the district administration, Election Commissioner observers in the field and senior state police officers. The final list of sensitive booths left very little scope for manipulation or complaints. The phasing of the elections also helped to improve and maximise the armed police cover. The effect of changing the election dates of some constituencies also helped increase armed police cover to practically 95 percent of the polling stations in every phase.
Thus the holding of the poll on seven days instead of four days helped in eliminating booth capture, and re-polls came down substantially, from about 1,764 in the February-March 2005 assembly election to 301 in the October-November 2005 election.
The Election Commission's no-nonsense approach in transferring poor performers or partisan officials and inducting efficient and neutral officers sent the right signals to the bureaucracy to perform without fear or favour.
One is sorry and also loath to admit it, but it is true that the state being under President's Rule helped as the state administration was more forthcoming and its officials were not subjected to contrary pulls.
The constant monitoring and frequent visits by the Commission itself and the frequent visits by its adviser K J Rao, especially his supervision on the poll days, all helped to create the right atmosphere for a poll.
Much has been said about the low polling in Bihar. It is true that compared to the Lok Sabha election of May 2004 (58 percent), polling was lower by about 12 percentage points in the assembly poll at 46.47 percent in February-March 2005. But ascribing it to the presence of a large posse of armed police, as some quarters have alleged, would be totally wrong.
If this argument were to be true, then one should have had an even lower level of polling in the October-November 2005 election as compared to February-March poll because the armed police coverage this time was substantially higher: almost twice. But the polling percentage was more or less the same at 45.59 percent in October-November 2005 even when the overall electors' strength went down by 2.5 percent.
Having said that, it is necessary to admit that if half the electorate does not consider it worthwhile exercising its franchise, there is something seriously amiss requiring remedial measures.
Over the years the Election Commissioner has also been very strictly monitoring the actions of governments and political parties to ensure their adherence to the Model Code of Conduct. That document itself is in a way a symbol of the democratic spirit of our political parties as it was evolved by them by consensus, in the quest for setting up a level-playing field, with the EC designated as the umpire to administer it.
While on the one hand some dent has been made in electoral expenses with the Election Commission keeping a strict watch and accounting for expenditure on publicity and campaigning by restraining posters, wall-writing and so on by individual candidates, it is common knowledge that the ceiling on election expenditure is observed more in breach.
Further, there is a glaring loophole in the law in that there is no ceiling on expenditure by a party organisation. The burgeoning of money power in elections is a cause for serious concern and can be ignored only at the cost of undermining democracy. State funding of candidates without putting a ceiling on party expenditure monitoring would be an exercise in futility and would not solve the problem.
There can be no free and fair elections if money power and muscle power decide the outcome. Right thinking citizens need to ponder the question as to how money power in elections can be curbed. Perhaps the greater transparency in governance that can come about by a vigilant public opinion stridently exercising its right to information holds the promise and answer to that question.
The strong stand taken by the Supreme Court and many high courts in poll-related litigation has struck a blow for the empowerment of voters and civil society.
Another good augury is the emergence of civil society groups and the vigil mounted by a proactive media, which will certainly help to improve the quality of the polls.
India will be a sham democracy if the very foundation of a democratic polity, namely free and fair elections, are missing from the scene.
It needs the coming together of all the stakeholders -- the citizens at large, the Election Commission and the political class. When that happens our dream of seeing free, fair and peaceful polls like it happens in many other countries will turn to reality.
That will be the day when Indians could proudly say that India is also truly a democracy.
N Gopalaswamy is one of India's Election Commissioners