Elections 2024: The Learning Curve

Building Trust, Evolving Mechanisms that Build Better Understanding among Stakeholders, including the Voter!

In a free wheeling conversation, former Election Commissioner, Ashok Lavasa, highlights the magnitude of Indian democracy and the unfolding of every general election. There are no shortcuts, it’s a most elaborate and detailed SOPs in action. In conversation with Navin Berry.

As 2024 elections are virtually over, today is 31st May, when the last silent period was underway, before the results come out, regardless of the results, what do you see are the learning curves from this election? We have some basics to sort out at this point in time.  How does the planning take place in the ECI? Do we need as long a schedule as we did this time. Five long weeks in seven phases?

Well, each election has a learning curve within the ECI. Each time EC  looks into procedures, programmes, and tries to better the process. Regarding the length of the elections, there are numerous factors that go into the determining of the length, the phases, etc. At least some 365 days before the elections are due, the specific need-based planning gets started. There is active assessment of the manpower needed, the equipment required, the identification of sensitive areas and some such. EC looks at the requirement of forces, the availability of central forces. Everybody wants the deployment of central forces. Their movement is a logistical challenge.

How does this get done, then?

EC has a rule that it limits the number of voters to 1400 per polling station in urban areas and 1200 per station in rural areas. We have a million booths and we need 14 people approximately per station, including security forces.

Assessment of requirement of forces is first. Then reaching out to the MHA to understand how many numbers would be available. Except for CRPF which is an internal security force, all other forces are already deployed and they ascertain how many they can pull out and from where. Theoretically, if the required numbers can be made available, elections can be held within one day. But this is virtually impossible. If only even 50% is available, that requires rotation of forces, which means involving the logistical arms like the railways, the airlines and the concerned other ministries and state governments.

So, what would be the sum total feedback from this election?

There is a routine follow up done. A thorough review is done, and it would be done this time, too, I presume. There is always a need for a thorough review to learn lessons.

What would be your sense of it, in terms of phases, for example?

I cannot say. But possibly, we can cut down to 3 to 4 phases. This time, there was a gap of 6 to 14 days between each phase. This in itself is a massive operation. How we can optimise this movement, in terms of time, how much time can be cut between phases, how can this be reduced.

Can we reduce the number of forces required? Like with use of technology, for instance?

Sure, at present some 50% of the stations are covered by CCTVs. We can deploy more. The absence of physical presence of forces also has a negative effect, with political parties becoming lax. How much can we deploy need based forces is always under review.

Overall, forget the scattered criticism and cynicism, there is overall optimism. Just see how peaceful and flawless the election machinery flows, and how peacefully we are able to cast our vote?

Most certainly. The credit must go to all concerned, the people first and foremost, the ECI and the political parties. India has this enviable reputation globally for a people with almost 1 billion voters, voting peacefully across the country. It is a great tribute to India! It is also an acknowledgement of the wonder of Indian democracy, a testimony that has been true for over seven decades and more. Specifically, the ECI does deep analysis for each constituency, identifies the known history sheeters, the anti-socials, state by state review and in cooperation with local administrations, elaborate reviews of execution of arrest warrants, depositing of arms of unlawful elements etc are conducted.

So, you would say ECI does well on these counts?

More than that. You see the ECI has different layers of performance on which you can judge them. People have a tendency to pass comments more on aspects like the MCC and scheduling. But there is much more, behind the scenes. Round the year, performing their other core functions like registration of voters, the reviewing of the overall electoral roll, registration of new voters, identifying of polling stations which have to be publicly owned (not any private buildings), their accessibility; then looking at convenience of the physically challenged, the senior citizens and others. There is always activity going on, behind the scenes.

What about the first-time voters. We saw a fair degree of messaging to them?

EC  has a programme called SVEEP, which is systematic voters educational program, where EC educates them on the need to enrol, and cast their votes. The data suggests that only some 50% of the eligible first-time voters register. ECI engages with them, on various platforms. Electoral clubs are created in universities and communities. Overall, participation has increased. In 2019, we had some 67% voting, this time, too, we will be close to that figure by the time we finish the last phase tomorrow. Earlier, the percentage of women voters was about 10% less than the men, it is now more for women, so that is a good sign. I have gone to different educational institutions in the country and encouraged students to enrol and participate in the electoral process.

Coming back to a figure you shared, you have a million stations with a requirement of 14 per station. How do you ensure the ground rules are shared by this borrowed staff, so to say?

Yes, ECI has only some 500 people on its own rolls. So, the task boils down to the ECI carefully drafted SOPs, where every step is documented, explained and shared with the entire work force. It is most imaginatively done, practical in all aspects, leaving nothing to imagination. Every conceivable circumstance has been identified. Like in flying an aircraft, there are clearly stated SOPs. Every pilot knows them, consults them as and when required. So does the ATC. So, with the ECI team. We have people from all over, speaking different languages, from different regions. Only one standard operational procedures document to follow. There is nothing left to individual discretion. Detailed and repeated training programs are conducted to familiarize the staff with the procedurs.

What about that part where public comes face to face with the ECI, like with the scheduling and the MCC in specific? Does a seven-phase plan over so many weeks help anybody? It is often said it would suit the ruling party of the day!

That is difficult to say whether it does or does not. I personally think it can give more time perhaps to the star campaigners, but that would be true for all parties, why just for the ruling party. I would say if it does help, it would be an equal opportunity for all. However, it is beneficial to the party with greater resources.

What about the MCC? It gets flouted often with parties complaining right through the conduct of the elections.

See, like much else, this too is an evolving mechanism. It is a consensual document agreed upon by all the stakeholders. New guidelines are issued after every election. After every election, there is always a comprehensive review. This time, too, there should be no exception. Flouting the MCC can happen in two broad ways – offences in existing law, and expectation of a certain conduct that provides for a level playing field. In the latter, the idea is the ruling party of the day should not derive unfair advantage of being in power.

There is criticism every time that the ECI tends to look the other way? It is easily called up, every other day. Can the rules be defined differently, to enable greater transparency?

One must understand that public opinion is influenced by what the media writes and propagates. But what  you must know is that EC can act when it receives a written complaint. It cannot act upon newspaper reports or verbal accusations. We never know in public space if any complaint has indeed been lodged, and if so, what action has been taken. I am of the view that we need to become totally transparent. ECI must have an open website, it must enlist received complaints, and notify action taken. Even in a court of law, every decision taken does not satisfy all parties. So, it will be the case here, too. But at least the public will know that action and what action has been taken.

In my view, there is a case for new guidelines because increasingly candidates and campaigners have a tendency to adhere to the letter of the MCC but violate the spirit. This is what has been seen in this, as well as the last elections. A comprehensive review of MCC  should spell out  categories of violations, each having its own penalties. The consequence of each violation must also be spelt out. The procedures to be followed in deciding complaints, with strict time lines, in my sense, a maximum of 4/5 days each complain should have been acted upon, and clearly on the website. It should be a public document that will breed public trust in the EC. I also feel that political leaders need to lead by example of model conduct rather than give opportunities for complaints of violations. MCC can be effective only if political parties and leaders cooperate and EC acts as a neutral refree.

Finally, the most vexing issue. The complaints on the functioning of the EVMs? Why this lingering doubt all the time? And every time the opposition loses, they blame the chips?

I think the recent judgement of the Supreme Court is timely in dealing with the controversy. It has provided additional layers for comfort if and when a losing candidate thinks anything unfair has happened. Time and gain, the EVMs have been subjected to additional checks, nothing has been found that should cast any doubts. That doesn’t mean that there should be no questions. I think there is room for more dialogue between the political parties and the ECI. Each and every doubt must be addressed to build  extra trust, if required. If any additional steps are required, I think they should be taken. In the last two decades, elections have been studiously been conducted, no court has ever cast any doubt. The manner in which EVMs are manufactured, guarded, deployed and then opened, should give confidence to the people. A proper understanding and interaction between EC and the stakeholders will help in allaying doubt. All political parties and candidates are always kept informed about the movement of the EVMs.

So, as we concluded, on 31st May, before the exit polls started to share their gyan, and much before the first whiff of the results, an election well fought, with every stakeholder contributing his bit, in making this another feather to the cap of Indian democracy.

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