In April 1947 the Constituent Assembly of India decided on holding elections on the basis of universal suffrage to fulfil the demand that had been raised during the freedom movement. In a way it was a reaction to the elections based on a restricted franchise that had taken place during colonial rule. For instance, in the 1937 election only about one-fifth of the adults in the country were included in the electoral roll, which was organised with voters being grouped by community, profession, etc.
In November 1947 the Constituent Assembly Secretariat (CAS) began the process of preparing an electoral roll based on universal suffrage. Because of the link with citizenship the preparation of the roll was a practical effort to answer the question: “Who is an Indian?” and thus reinforcing the idea of a civic nationality with no reference to religious or ethnic attributes.
The bureaucrats who were asked to implement instructions from the CAS took the principle of universality very much to heart. The Collector of Bombay, for instance, argued that universality required that even those without a fixed personal address like servants who slept in stairwells and pavement dwellers should be enfranchised and a way was found to include anyone whose domicile in the constituency could be credibly established. An even more complex set of issues regarding refugees was also resolved. Ornit Shani’s study of this process shows how this process of preparing a universal electoral roll “contributed to forging a sense of national unity and national feeling, turned the notion of people’s belonging to something tangible.”(1)
I draw attention to these origins of our democracy to stress that a lot depends on the officials who have to run the electoral process. The public must be convinced that they are committed to basic principles of impartiality, neutrality, and rigorous implementation of electoral rules and codes of conduct.
Illustration: Ajay Mohanty
In the election process that is underway now there are fears that the apex body, which oversees the elections, is not as objective as what we have been used to so far. There has been extensive coverage of a letter written by retired civil servants drawing attention to some specific lapses. (Disclosure: I am one of the signatories to this letter.) There are signs that these fears are being addressed and one hopes that soon the confidence in the objectivity of election officials will be restored.
Legitimacy also depends on voters trusting the fairness of the voting and counting process. The move to electronic voting machines (EVMs) has been questioned by some on the argument that they can be manipulated. I for one am satisfied that the safeguards against manipulation built into the Indian EVMs are adequate. One must not forget that the old paper-based voting system was even easier to manipulate by getting hold of ballot papers and stuffing them into the boxes captured at polling stations. However, retaining voters trust is vital and hence the universal use of Voter Verified Paper Audit Trails (VVPATs) is welcome. There are questions about how many of these should be sampled and counted. One understands that now, instead of just one per constituency, five VVPATs will be chosen and tallied against the EVM count. One way of choosing the five would be to ask the first loser to pick three and the second loser to pick two.
While the electoral officials have to be objective and impartial, the politicians who are in the fray will necessarily exaggerate differences, distort facts, and indulge in invectives. But when these reach a point where an attempt is made to distinguish between Indians by religion or ethnic origin then the political process directly challenges the constitutional norm of the equality and civic nationality. This is a red line that must never be crossed. Yet, in this election, this line is being crossed with impunity. The Model Code of Conduct has enough in it to allow the Election Commission to crack down severely and strongly on these transgressions and we need to see a more vigorous exercise of this power.
There is another dimension of the current political discourse that gives cause for concern. The language used by politicians about one another lacks civility (sabhyata) and restraint (saiyam). Respect for the Opposition is a necessary component of parliamentary democracy. Moreover, when political legitimacy is spread out amongst many parties and where coalitions are the rule, the fierce invective that we are seeing now could endanger political stability. The acrimony that distorts political discourse has been worsened by the shift in media coverage from the press to TV shows with highly biased anchors and social media posts that facilitate the spread of fake news and divisive rhetoric.
An effective democracy requires a level playing field for all parties and individuals in the political arena. But politicians in power seldom respect this and do what they can to get away with using their official functions and resources for electoral advantage. A particularly dangerous form of this is the manipulation of rules to favour a party in the raising of political funds as in the recent changes that have been made in the law relating to corporate contributions to political parties and the introduction of electoral bonds that permit anonymous donations. According to the Association of Democratic Reform, the vast bulk of corporate donations in FY17 and FY18, after the relevant law was changed, went to one political party. Details about the Rs 2,700 crore worth of electoral bonds purchased and donated are not publicly available and are the subject of a case before the Supreme Court. But all the indications are that the bulk of the bond donations have also gone to one party.
The democracy that our founders envisaged is in trouble. A discredited election will challenge the constitutional legitimacy of the incumbent government. Laws, rules for ensuring a level playing field, codes of conduct for elections and their rigorous implementation by an independent Election Commission are only the beginning. A lot depends on the emergence of norms of behaviour that reject messages of hate against any group, respect the right of the Opposition, and that set standards for political discourse that in time become tradition. As citizens and voters we need to assert our desire to see a higher standard of behaviour in our political class.
Orniti Shani, How India became Democratic, Penguin/Viking, 2018 page 7