THE GREAT MARCH OF DEMOCRACY: SEVEN DECADES OF INDIA’S ELECTIONS
Edited by S.Y. Quraishi
Penguin/ Random House, Gurgaon, 2019, pp. 296, Rs.699.00
In the summer of 2019, while following the election campaign of Kanhaiya Kumar in Begusarai, I stumbled upon a dilapidated nondescript piece of history, tucked away in the vast hinterlands of Bihar. A dilapidated structure, seemingly remains of what was once a polling booth, in Kachhari Tola, of Rachiyari village, in Matihani Assembly seat, is claimed by locals to be the first booth in India, which stands witness to possibly the first instance of electoral malpractice, called ‘booth capturing’ in the 1957 general elections. Locals recall that the alleged booth capturing was done in favour of local strongman Saryug Prasad Singh, who was ultimately defeated by Communist leader Chandrashekhar Singh. What probably started with a few enthusiastic locals on bullock carts, trying to sabotage the polling for their opponent, in that nondescript village in Begusarai, eventually evolved in almost industrial proportions in the subsequent years, becoming by the 1990s, one of the main ‘strategies’ of electoral corruption that became a threat to free and fair elections in the Indian hinterland. Fortunately, the Election Commission of India was able to overcome this threat in the years that followed.
In the same summer, during the 2019 general election campaign before polling was slated to occur in Gujarat, I encountered another strange edifice of electoral malpractice, a very bright and shining one, in Ahmedabad, very close to where I live. The brightly lit digital hoardings on some of the prominent arterial roads in the city were dotted with large sized full-blown hoardings of a 10-part web series titled NAMO, which was based on the life of the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Such an organized publicity campaign eulogizing the life and times of an incumbent politician, whose ministers were contesting elections from the seat, seemed to be in clear violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), which dictates the rules of engagement that every political party has to adhere to by in the run up to elections to ensure a level playing field for all the contestants.
However, the People’s Representation Act 1951, which is used by the ECI to stipulate the Dos and Don’ts in the MCC, was found to be outdated enough to decide on matters related to digital content on web platforms, which are not under the censor board, and to deal with instances which fall in the contentious ambit of ‘paid-news’. And so, the ECI looked the other way, as an actor looking like Narendra Modi, smiled down at us from the giant bill boards in Ahmedabad, with the bold inscriptions of NAMO displayed elegantly.
Many of the problems that the Election Commission of India has had to deal with in its steadfast attempts to make India’s elections free and fair to the largest possible extent can be categorized between the instance of the first booth capturing in Begusarai to the instance of the web-series advertisements in Ahmedabad. The ECI has had to tackle many adversities and challenges that democracy’s onward march has thrown at it, and so far, given the robustness of India’s democracy and high levels of participation and faith of the voters in the electoral process, it will be right to say that the ECI has overcome each hurdle exceptionally well. The book under review is a good repository of many such challenges that the ECI has faced and successfully overcome as well as many more challenges that it is currently facing. It is edited by a former Chief Election Commissioner, S Y Quraishi, who has been trying to build meaningful bridges between the academics and practitioners related to the field of democracy and elections in India. The Great March of Democracy: Seven Decades of India’s Elections is firstly an ode to the Election Commission and at the same time, represents the very diversity that makes Indian democracy so vibrant and dynamic, as it boasts of a plurality of perspectives on Indian elections, from academics, data specialists, anthropologists, sociologists, cinema artistes, ambassadors, politicians, bureaucrats as well as foreign observers.
Elections have a sort of centrality in reinforcing the belief in democracy. The role of the Election Commission therefore becomes very important in maintaining this centrality. This is aptly captured in Mukulika Banerjee’s article, which quotes an ECI official as saying, ‘Yeh pareeksha bhi hai aur shaadi bhi’ (It is a test as well as a wedding celebration). This goes to show that for the ECI, conducting elections is all about deftly managing the huge task of maintaining high levels of procedural transparency so as to make elections free and fair, as well as to keep up to the mammoth organizational task of reaching out to a hugely diverse set of electorate, which is spread across an even more diverse geographical terrain of the Indian subcontinent. It is this balance which reinforces the faith of ordinary Indians in procedural democracy, even though we might be lagging behind in terms of substantive democracy (Saxena 2018). Again, in turn, it is this faith, which has led people to ‘internalize’ democracy.
The chapters by Yogendra Yadav, Mukulika Banerjee, Bhikhu Parekh, Shashi Tharoor and Kabir Bedi highlight the virtues and distinctive features of India’s elections and the pivotal role the ECI’s has played. Ornit Shani, David Gilmartin, Taylor Sherman and TN Seshan have managed to capture the historical trajectories of the ECI and its functioning, giving us a wide perspective of how India’s citizens first became voters before becoming citizens and how vulnerable the processes of elections were in postcolonial India, in the immediate aftermath of Partition violence. The chapters by Karamjeet Singh, Mark Tully, Ila Sharma and Dasho Wangdi, bring forth the unique foreign lens through which they observe Indian elections. They analyse the entire enterprise of free and fair elections with all its festivities and its disruptions which have enlightened them about the appropriation of democratic principles of equality and freedom in a society which is otherwise rampant with high levels of socio-economic inequality, social and structural hierarchy as well as poverty and illiteracy.
Gilles Verniers looks at ECI’s role of maintaining excellent large-scale and longitudinal election data, which is an often-neglected aspect of the ECI’s work. Rahul Verma’s engagement with the business of exit polls and their growing prevalence in the Indian election industry is also very refreshing as it tackles certain challenges related to the polls and clears some misconceptions related to the generation of big data in the context of elections. Niranjan Sahoo and Jagdeep Chhokar’s chapters bring attention to the problems of unregulated money and financial distortions related to election as well as the party funding, that has emerged as one of the most pressing issues of contemporary times. Quraishi’s own chapter is also very illuminating as it describes the manner in which ECI could successfully attract and involve huge numbers of voters into the electoral procedures, thereby increasing the voter turnout in India by significant proportions, while the same in many established democracies around the world has been waning, in the wake of what is being called, a ‘democratic backslide’ or ‘retreat of democracy’.
The chapters in the volume are not all adulatory in tone though, and some of them do manage to bring out the challenges that the ECI faces today. As Milan Vaishnav points out, in the absence of strong punitive and preventive powers, the ECI is often seen to be fighting the challenges of electoral malpractices or anomalies with one hand tied to its back. It is remarkable indeed that even with such limited institutional capacity the ECI has delivered such high degrees of transparency and accountability in the conduct of free and fair elections. The problems of increasing money power, the opaque nature of political funding and corporate donations, the inapplicability of Right to Information Act (RTI) and the large-scale intrusion of cash changing hands in the electoral field, are some of the grave concerns, which raise serious doubts on the fairness of the electoral process. Vaishnav writes, ‘while it is true that the ECI possesses unprecedented supervisory powers in conducting elections, its authorities to deal with modern methods of political finance are outmatched and outdated.’
Some instances from the past however, do illustrate how individual level leadership can play a pivotal role in overcoming such challenges related to the limits of power faced by the ECI.
As Christopher Jaffrelot writes about TN Seshan’s tenure as the Chief Election Commissioner, and as Seshan himself evaluates his own stint at the ECI, we can clearly see that individual leadership can be crucial to increasing the efficiency and autonomy of the institution as well. Under pressure from the political class and facing the threat of periodic disruptions from the lumpen elements who engaged in systematic booth capturing and sabotage activities, Seshan used the only power that was accorded to him, that of changing the time of the election. By postponing and deferring the timing of elections on multiple occasions, Seshan was able to extract high levels of compliance to the MCC from the political class. In fact, it was Seshan’s overpowering stature as an Election Commissioner, who refused to toe the line of the political class that stirred them up to first try and impeach him to ensure his removal and as that attempt failed in the court of law, then there was an effort to curb his powers by introducing two additional Election Commissioners thereby expanding the ECI into a three-member body, with a majority based decision-making policy in 1993. This was however not the first time such an attempt was made to dilute the unitary powers of the Chief Election Commissioner. In the 1980s, under the Rajiv Gandhi government, the then CEC, RVS Peri Shastri also had to face this when two additional Election Commissioners were imposed on him in order to curtail his authority, as he was seen as being non-compliant to the government’s diktats regarding the timing of elections, to suit the convenience of the government.
It is remarkable that a couple of decades later, another CEC, JM Lyngdoh could emerge victorious and stronger out of a similar situation in Gujarat elections of 2002, when the BJP Government under Narendra Modi advocated early elections after the dissolution of the State Assembly, to reap the sentimental effects of the 2002 violence and the ECI refused to bow down to such overtures. The emergence of a ‘confrontational’ attitude of the ECI also goes to show the entrenchment of its own autonomy over the business of conducting elections and how it does not get pressurized by the ruling powers. A kind of renewed invigoration of ECI’s autonomy has also developed over the years as it has passed through several phases of evolution (Sharma 2018). In the early phase the ECI enjoyed the support of unusually capable leadership, political elites interested in free and fair elections which helped to build its institutional credibility and a procedural honesty in conducting elections.
In the subsequent phases, with a rise in the number of instances of electoral violence or forms of malpractices and political interferences, there was a gradual decline in the rule of law in elections; however, the ECI was still able to effectively administer elections (Palmer 1997). In the decades beginning from 1980s, with both a reduction in the support from the political class in free and fair elections as well as a decline in the faith of ordinary citizens in the institutional autonomy of the ECI, the institution could still salvage some pride by resorting to rigorous and transparent procedures during elections and by using election petitions to reach out to another autonomous institution: the Judiciary, in order to save its own institutional autonomy from declining severely.
The various adaptations and internal changes occurring within the ECI, which have changed its perception from being one among the many autonomous institutions in Independent India to becoming the most trusted institution in the eyes of the ordinary citizens and which has changed its nature from being a single member constitutionally appointed body, with heavy reliance on the state to discharge its duty to a multi-member body, which invigorates and mandates a lot of state support, are well documented in the chapters included in this volume, though not in a detailed manner. Given the paucity of space when one has to accommodate a plurality of perspectives, this volume too falls short in providing detailed engagement in some these perspectives. It is worth recollecting that the early period of a single party dominance in India by the Congress Party, the ECI was in its initial phases of development when it had a remarkable leadership, which was equally motivated and committed to ensuring free and fair election. At a time when the BJP has replaced the Congress as the single dominant party and has increasingly marginalized the space for any oppositional politics as well, it is important to understand how the ECI will defend its institutional autonomy and how it will retain the faith of ordinary citizens in the election process.
What ends up as an adulatory account of the ECI’s glorious track record and its exceptional abilities in overcoming the several odds against which it has always found itself, standing tall, somewhere also falls short of enabling a useful and informative discussion on how the ECI is or will be facing the problems of majoritarian exuberance and deepened anxieties of an increasingly marginalized political class (when we speak of the opposition) which may either instill or uninstall the faith that ordinary citizens have in one of the republic’s most prestigious institutions.
It is apt to conclude using TN Seshan’s words, ‘As for the Election Commission, may it cherish its beholden duty to our fledgling democracy. May it continue to gain strength and hold its autonomy with glory so that the fate of the citizens of this nation and the hopes of yearning democracies all over the world is held in the bosom of trust.’
1. Sharma, R (2018). ‘The Evolution of the Election Commission of India: Political Context and Institutional Design.’ Economic & Political Weekly. 53 (3): 59-66
2. Saxena, S. (2018, May, 22). ‘Procedural versus Substantive Democracy: How India Fares’. https://thewire.in/politics/procedural-versus-substantive-democracy-how-india- fares
3. Palmer, ND (1967). ‘India’s Fourth General Election.’ Asian Survey. 7 (5): 275-91
Sarthak Bagchi is Assistant Professor, School of Arts and Sciences, Ahmedabad University.