Being a perpetual skeptic of India, Winston Churchill once said, “Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low caliber & men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India.”
Democracy in India, one with free and fair elections, was the least that the British had hoped while exiting in 1947. After 73 years of Independence, India is the world’s largest democracy with 90 crore registered voters.
The pillar of strength in this achievement is the Election Commission of India. Set up on this very day, 25th January, in 1950, today it completes 70 years of its existence.
It would be interesting to revisit the journey of elections in India.
Constitution Lays the Base
The Constitution was promulgated on 26th January 1950 and laid down the basis of free and fair elections in India.
It set up the Election Commission, gave it the requisite powers to conduct elections, made 21 years as the age criteria for voting and so on. A summary of the important articles can be seen below
The Parliament was given requisite powers to pass laws regulating elections. The Parliament passed the twin Representation of People’s Act of 1950 and 1951. All the important duties of Election Commission are mentioned in these acts.
Towards the First Election
Imagine a time in 1951, with barely 18% literacy, with 90% people staying in remote rural areas not connected by proper roads. Such masses suddenly land up with a universal right to vote to elect their leaders, a striking change from the tyranny of “Gora Sahibs” they saw till a few years back. They were totally unaware of what are elections.
Partition had just happened. Refugees were being settled in an already economically weak nation. Added to that was the constant skepticism of West about India’s sustainability as a democracy.
Now imagine you are the Chief Election Commissioner and you are told to conduct the first ever elections of India. That responsibility was given to Sukumar Sen, India’s first Chief Election Commissioner.
Over 224,000 polling booths were set up. More than 12 lakh steel ballot-boxes were used with nearly 62 crore ballot papers printed. About 10 lakh officials supervised the conduct of the polls. Since Central and State polls were being conducted together, a total of about 17000 candidates were in the fray. We succeeded. India’s first election exercise was successful.
About 46% people voted, a huge victory for a nation with barely 18% literate people.
Elections of 1952
From Ballot Papers to EVMs
Ballot papers became the trademark of elections in India. There were separate ballot boxes for each candidate. The voters were given ballot papers on which they needed to stamp the party symbol, and put the ballot in the respective box. It was a crude method with people writing poems and messages to the leaders. It took long time to count the ballots.
The metal Ballot Box, almost looks like an artifact in a museum today
The ballot boxes were used till 1990s. Given the increasing voter base, the ballot system was increasingly becoming difficult to implement. EVMs came to the rescue.
Electronic Voting Machines were first used on a pilot basis in 1981 and later on in various assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, etc. on a small scale. Given the ease of usage, it soon became popular. The usage for Lok Sabha elections started from 2004, after 2009 the EVMs were totally adopted for elections.
Election Commission has efficiently managed the EVMs, their programming, security and the storage. The news channels who proclaim results of elections within few hours of counting should be thankful to the EVMs.
Nevertheless, in a disturbing trend, Congress is sowing doubts with fake news and misinformation about EVMs which has prevented all the malpractices used to be happen in the days of ballot papers.
Changes in Voting Age in 1988
This was a giant leap in ensuring all adults were allowed to vote. In British times, barely 10% people were eligible as voters due to restrictions. When first elections took place in Independent India, the eligibility was kept at 21 years, that enlarged the Indian electorate to a whopping 17 crore.
But the aim of ensuring active youth participation in democracy made the Parliament pass the 61st Constitutional Amendment that reduced the age bar to 18 years.
The Fiery Years of T.N Seshan (1990-1996)
The strict headmaster of Election Commission, T.N Seshan, became the Chief Election Commissioner in 1990. His upright ways of functioning changed the way we see elections
At a time when electoral malpractices, bribery, liquor distribution, use of official machinery for candidates was rampant, Seshan used his iron-hand to make election process rule-driven.
- Model Code of Conduct, which was first issued during 1962 Lok Sabha elections, was consolidated under T.N Seshan
- Election cards that are issued to every registered voter was his brain child. It was completed expeditiously in his tenure. This reduced scope of fake voters.
- Cooling off period before voting, including dry days, was his idea that made distribution of liquor very difficult.
- He successfully reduced booth capturing and violence by the method of staggering elections in various phases so that police forces can be sent to secure the polling booths.
His strict actions offended many politicians, but secured the election process.
Litigation and Electoral Process
Reforms were also driven by the Courts, duly supported by the Election Commission of India. Important changes were introduced through crucial Supreme Court judgments
- More powers to EC– In the Mohinder Gill vs Chief Election Commissioner case 1978, the SC broadened the scope of Election Commission’s power to conduct elections under Article 324. The EC can now decide on issues which aren’t yet covered by any laws
- Declare Election Expenditure– In the Common Cause case of 1996, the court asked the candidates to file election expenditure details including third party expenditure, failing which it would be considered as electoral offence
- Declare Criminal Background– On a PIL filed in 2002, the court asked the Parliament to frame a law that would make it compulsory for all candidates to declare their criminal background.
- Introduction of VVPAT– In the Subramanian Swamy vs ECI case 2013, the court asked for the use of VVPAT (Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail) in all the EVMs used. This ensured better transparency.
- Limit on Freebies– In S Subramanium Balaji vs State of Tamil Nadu 2013, the court said a party can’t promise unjustified freebies in their election manifesto. It laid two conditions- promise shouldn’t be repugnant with ideals of Constitution, and that there should be financial resources to fulfill it.
Elections in the Modi Era
The spirit of reforms exhibited by the Modi government was extended to the electoral process too.
The most crucial decision taken was the introduction of Electoral Bonds. The funder can buy the bond from specific banks and hand it over to the party he wishes. The name of buyer will be known only to the bank and RBI, thus ensuring no one is targeted for their funding a particular party. This will also eliminate use of black money as the money paid will leave a trail.
Modi government also initiated discussion on the Simultaneous Elections. Conducting center and state elections simultaneously will save time, resources, reduce time of imposition of Model Code of Conduct and ensure leaders focus on development than politics.
Proxy voting is under discussion for NRIs. The NRIs can nominate a proxy in India who can vote on their behalf. Moreover, providing e-ballot voting for NRIs is also under discussion which will help NRIs cast vote online.
Elections in India will continue to keep improving. What we must be happy about is that those people whose misplaced belief that Indian democracy won’t sustain have been proven wrong. Today’s 70th anniversary of Election Commission is an egg on the face of naysayers.