Hiring of one Software Developer at Publications Division Headquarters, New Delhi on contract. || Subscribe print version with complimentary e-version @Rs.530 per annum; Subscribe only e-version @Rs.400 per annum. || !! ATTENTION ADVERTISERS !! Advertisers are requested to give full details of job Vacancies/ Minimum size will now be 200 sq.cm for shorter advertisements || Click here to become an e-resource aggregator of Publications Division || New Advertisement Policy || ||

Editorial Articles


Issue no 34, 18-24 November 2023

 

Ensuring Free and Fair Elections in the

World's Largest Democracy

 

INTERVIEW

As the world's largest democracy, elections in India represent a colossal undertaking, and the Election Commission of India (ECI) shoulders the critical responsibility of upholding the principles of free and fair elections. Speaking to Bhupendra Singh for Employment News, the Chief Election Commissioner of India, Shri Rajiv Kumar discussed the strategies and measures employed by the Commission to ensure universal voter inclusion, revision and updation of electoral rolls, tackle low voter turnout, and combating challenges like fake news and misinformation. He also shed light on the pivotal role of technology in electoral processes and the ECI's commitment to fostering democratic values globally through its international collaborations. Excerpts of the interview are as follows:

 

Question: Sir, could you please elaborate on the strategies and measures the Election Commission of India has employed over the years to fulfill its mandate of ensuring universal voter inclusion, participation, and fair results?

Answer: If you look at the elections in India, it's a way of life. It is very assimilative. The entire decision-making is accommodative, we learn from each other, we integrate, and we assimilate. And during the elections, we cast our vote with full faith that our expression will get true results - the result which the people want. ECI's track record includes successfully overseeing over 400 State Legislative Assembly elections, 16 Presidential elections, 16 Vice Presidential elections, and 17 national elections. The cornerstone of our approach revolves around three key pillars:

(1) Voter Support and Enrollment: Our first priority is to provide robust support to voters, ensuring that they are well-informed and registered. This involves an extensive effort to enroll eligible citizens and provide them with the necessary facilities to cast their votes.

(2) Fostering Participation: We are committed to making the election process participative not only for voters but also for political parties and candidates. Our aim is to create an environment where all stakeholders are actively engaged in the electoral process.

(3) Efficient Election Management: Ensuring smooth and efficient election management is crucial. This involves meticulous planning and execution, from polling station setup to result tabulation and announcement.

India's electoral landscape is unique in its scale, with a staggering 95 crore voters, surpassing the combined number of voters in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. What's even more promising is the upward trajectory in voter participation. In the most recent 2019 elections, voter turnout reached 67%, and notably, women voters exhibited higher participation rates than their male counterparts. This reflects a positive aspect of our election management and our democracy's health. However, we acknowledge the challenge of addressing the approximately 29-30 crore missing voters. To tackle this issue, we are looking at three key areas: (i) Urban Apathy: We are working to counter urban apathy, encouraging city-dwellers to engage actively in the electoral process. (ii) Youth Engagement: Recognising youth apathy as a concern, we are making efforts to involve younger generations in politics and voting. (iii) Migrant Workforce: The mobility of the workforce, both within and outside states, poses a unique challenge. We aim to find solutions to ensure that even these individuals can participate in the electoral process.

 

Question: Sir, ECI has recently started the special summary revision process to revise the electoral rolls. How will this process make the entire polling machinery more inclusive? 

Answer: The Special Summary Revision of our electoral rolls occurs annually. You may ask "what is the purpose". The answer is to ensure "Roll to Poll". The primary objective of the exercise is to ensure a pure and healthy electoral roll, a crucial component of election integrity. "Pure" in this context signifies the absence of duplicates, with accurate information, including photos and contact details. On the other hand, "healthy" means that the roll should encompass the entire eligible population, proportionate to gender, age groups, and other demographic parameters based on census figures.

In an effort to make our electoral rolls more inclusive and diverse, we've made provisions for persons with disabilities, mapping approximately 81 lakh of them in our rolls. Furthermore, senior citizens over the age of 80, who have made significant contributions to the nation, are a particular focus. We are proud to have 1.84 crore 80+ voters, including 2.55 lakh centenarians. An outreach initiative was undertaken, with personalised letters sent to all centenarian voters, emphasising the importance of respecting and acknowledging our elders.

Voting rights are now extended to those who are 80 years or older and to persons with disabilities with a disability level of forty percent. Additionally, for the 18-19 age group, consisting of around 1.85 crore potential voters, draft publication of electoral rolls took place on October 7th.

Efforts are being made to maintain the purity of electoral rolls by promptly removing the names of deceased individuals or those who have relocated, with Booth Level Officers (BLOs) available at polling stations until December 9th. Copies of the electoral rolls have been shared with political parties and displayed at polling stations for easy access. This is also an opportunity to correct personal details, including photos and addresses.

Technology plays a significant role in this process, with citizens encouraged to visit the nearest polling station and use online resources to verify their information. It is crucial to ensure that your name is correctly listed, and you are assigned to the right polling station. Young voters who will turn 18 in 2024 can apply in advance, and the Election Commission will issue voter cards as they become eligible. Then comes the next stage - to take the voters from the electoral roll to the polling stations to cast their votes. 

 

Question: Could you provide more insight on how the ECI is addressing poor voter turnout among urban and youth demographics in light of the initiatives involving celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar, Rajkumar Rao, and the use of comic characters for voter education?

Answer: The Election Commission now allows for advanced applications and has expanded the qualifying dates for voter registration. Those turning 18 by April 1, 2024, will have the opportunity to vote in elections occurring after April, encouraging young voters to get enrolled. Young voters are encouraged not only to cast their votes but also to bring at least one friend to the polling station, becoming voting ambassadors and promoting civic responsibility. Efforts are underway to improve voter turnout in urban areas by scheduling election dates on Wednesdays to prevent extended weekend holidays. Collaborations with corporates have been initiated to encourage employee participation. To further engage and inspire young voters, celebrities like Sachin Tendulkar and Rajkumar Rao have joined voter awareness campaigns voluntarily, contributing their passion and influence to the cause.

The Election Commission has employed iconic comic characters like Chacha Chaudhary to connect with youth voters through creative and relatable means. These initiatives are expected to make a positive impact and enhance voter engagement, particularly among the youth.

 

Question:  Sir, during your tenure, we've witnessed a substantial commitment to addressing the influence of money power in elections. Could you please elucidate the precise measures and actions that the ECI has implemented to counter this challenge?

Answer: To control the influence of money in elections, ECI has recently enhanced its monitoring efforts and strengthened the compliance system, incorporating technology-driven solutions. Key measures include (1) Expenditure Management System (EMS): ECI introduced an EMS application, requiring political parties to report their financial accounts online. Candidates also need to submit their expenditure details to expenditure observers, who digitise the information. Political parties must also report their donations digitally, making compliance easier and enabling data analytics. (2) Enhanced Coordination: During assembly elections in 2023, ECI focused on ensuring cooperation between central and state enforcement agencies to prevent working in isolation. Seizures during these elections increased significantly, surpassing 1400 crores, marking a thousand percent rise compared to the 2018/19 assembly elections. (3) Real-Time Reporting: An IT application was introduced to facilitate real-time reporting of seizures and interceptions by various agencies, including excise, Coast Guard, BSF, Income Tax, and Enforcement Directorates, promoting better coordination and transparency. (4) CVIGIL Application: ECI launched the CVIGIL (Citizens be Vigilant) application, encouraging voters to report any irregularities during the election process. With this app, citizens can quickly report incidents of money distribution, fraudulent practices, or other violations. To combat money power in elections, ECI has also scrutinized contribution reports, leading to the inactivation of over 500 unrecognised political parties to prevent the misuse of illegal funds.

 

Question: Sir, the proliferation of fake news, misinformation, and malinformation on social media during elections poses a significant challenge for election management bodies worldwide. Could you please shed light on the specific strategies the ECI has implemented to deal with such issue?

Answer: Social media actually is a both boon and also a problem. A lot of meaningful discussions take place on those platforms. But at the same time, in this age of artificial intelligence, a lot of fake narratives also get developed. We have observed the propagation of fake narratives during recent elections in the five state assemblies, and these narratives are often skillfully manipulated, altering voices, faces, locations, and presenting false events as authentic occurrences.

To combat this challenge, strict actions are imperative against those responsible for spreading fake news. Recently issued guidelines under the IT Act provide a framework for taking action against fake news purveyors. While the ECI is directing District Magistrates, Superintendents of Police, and Cyber Cell officers to take action, including identifying the source of fake news, there is also a need to raise awareness among voters and the general public. Citizens are discerning and intelligent, capable of differentiating between real news and falsehoods. The responsibility lies with both citizens and the Election Commission to ensure accurate and responsible information dissemination. Providing easy access to factual information on the commission's website empowers individuals to independently assess the veracity of news and form informed opinions.

 

Question: From voter registrations to ensuring transparency in polling and counting of votes, the role of technology has become imperative. Could you please highlight any new and innovative technological intervention that have been implemented or are planned for the upcoming elections to enhance the electoral process?

Answer: The integration of technology has brought transformative improvements to various facets of the electoral process, contributing to transparency, efficiency, and accessibility.  Technology has significantly enhanced voter services through a range of applications. Approximately 28 applications have been developed, primarily aimed at empowering voters. These applications allow voters to verify their registration status, access information about their designated polling stations, and gain insights into electoral candidates through the "Know Your Candidate" app. Notably, elderly and disabled voters benefit from the "Saksham" application, which enables them to request special accommodations on polling day. Likewise, to ensure a level playing field and streamline the interaction between political parties, candidates, and electoral authorities, an application known as "Suvidha" has been introduced. This application simplifies the process of applying for permits and facilities, such as booking grounds for rallies or securing permissions for campaign materials. The "first in, first out" principle is followed to maintain fairness and efficiency in the application process. Also, technology plays a crucial role in managing logistics and administrative tasks. For instance, the movement of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) is randomised and shared with political parties, ensuring that neither the destination nor the route is predetermined. This randomisation enhances the credibility of the electoral process. Furthermore, the election management process involves meticulously conducting the electoral process at approximately 12 lakh polling booths, maintaining consistent records, and ensuring transparency. Notably, India's electoral system is renowned for delivering results swiftly, often on the same day. This is a remarkable feat given the scale of the operation. It stands as one of the world's largest peacetime mobilisations, showcasing the effectiveness of technology and coordinated efforts.

 

Question: Could you explain how the Election Commission of India collaborates with foreign Election Management Bodies (EMBs) to support democratic processes worldwide?

Answer: The ECI plays a pivotal role in promoting democratic values and sharing its expertise with electoral democracies worldwide. India's vast and complex electoral landscape has garnered global attention, and the ECI actively engages with international election management bodies through several initiatives:

·         India currently leads the Association of World Election Management Bodies (AWEB), which has over 120 member countries. AWEB serves as a platform for sharing best practices, experiences, and expertise in electoral management.

·         The ECI operates the India International Training and Democratic Management Institute (IITDMI) which offers comprehensive training programmes on various aspects of election management, such as technology adoption, social media control, and effective electoral processes. The institute has welcomed over 2,500 international participants from 117 countries so far.

·         The ECI, in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), has introduced a Master of Arts (MA) programme. This programme provides a hybrid learning approach, combining online and offline training, and includes practical fieldwork in participants' home countries. Scholarships are also offered to foreign nationals to attend this programme.

·         International Conferences: The ECI has been organising international conferences on strengthening election management, promoting accessibility and inclusiveness in elections, and leveraging technology. These conferences facilitate knowledge exchange and collaboration on a global scale.

The ECI's commitment to fair, transparent, and inclusive elections has earned it recognition and respect internationally. The ECI shares its knowledge while also learning from the experiences of other countries, contributing to the global advancement of democratic values and electoral processes.

 

(The interviewer is Correspondent, All India Radio, New Delhi. Feedback on this interview can be sent to feedback.employmentnews@gmail.com)

Views expressed are personal.