In Digital India, why do elections stretch for weeks?

India thinks it is a potential superpower, with a world-class IT industry. Narendra Modi has launched Digital India. Yet India looks like the most backward of all democracies in one respect — the time taken for polling.

In most democracies, polling occurs on a single day, and the counting of votes begins soon after polling ends. In the US, counting of votes in East Coast states can start before polling ends in West Coast states, which are in a time zone three hours behind the east. Typically, counting begins and election results are declared the same evening or next day.

But India takes ages to hold a poll, and the time between the first and last rounds of polling keeps rising. In the 2004 general election, polling in four phases took 21 days. In 2009, polling over five phases took 28 days. Polling in the 2014 election required no less than nine phases over 37 days.

Is India too large to organise elections in a day or two? No, even elections in a single state take weeks. The 2015 Bihar election was held in five phases over 24 days. The 2017 election in Uttar Pradesh required seven rounds of polling over 26 days.

Moreover, we have long gaps between the last day of polling and counting of votes. In the 2014 election, counting started three days after polling ended. A task taking a few hours in other democracies takes three days in India. This is not because of manual counting, as was the case in earlier decades. In recent times, all votes are recorded on electronic voting machines. But these are not digitally interlinked, and after polling, are kept in secure storage, with all political parties keeping guard, to check against hankypanky. They are eventually all moved to counting centres.

Why does holding elections and counting votes take so long? In the early decades after Independence, polling was held mostly on a single day, with no violence. The main exception was in snow-bound areas like Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, where elections took place later. By the 1960s, violent political clashes at election time caused many deaths. By the 1980s, the capture of polling booths and stuffing of ballot boxes by gangsters of sundry parties became a menace. The police and para-military forces were supposed to check this. But often the ruling party facilitated booth capture by its own goons, who were aided by manipulating deployment of security forces. Democracy was in jeopardy.

Chief election commissioner T N Seshan finally checked this in the early 1990s. He berated chief ministers and other politicians for booth capturing. He decided that the Election Commission and not chief ministers would control the deployment of security forces to ensure fair elections. He phased polling over several days so that security forces could be shifted from one polling zone to another. In time, this mostly ended booth capture by gangs. When officials or rival parties reported a capture, repolling would be ordered, making booth capture a failure.

This improvement in electoral fairness was buttressed by technological change with the arrival of e-voting machines, which could not so easily be captured and stuffed. Later came CCTV cameras that would capture any violence or gangsterism, and smartphones that enabled anybody at a polling booth to shoot and distribute photos of any booth capture. Voting machines are now supplemented by paper ballots to ensure a paper trail in case the fairness of an election is challenged. In consequence, election violence has reduced greatly.

This should have enabled the Election Commission to shrink the period of polling. Alas, the opposite is happening. Polling is phased over ever more rounds, taking more than a month. A separate polling day is understandable for areas dominated by religious militants or Maoists — in places like Kashmir and Bastar — to facilitate safe voting. But why have so many polling days in non-militant areas?

This is overkill by the Election Commission. Some state elections now occur every year, and long polling periods disrupt government work. No policy decisions can be taken after polling is notified. So, a long polling period increases the no-decision period. Democratic elections are supposed to facilitate good governance, not halt decision making. Besides, politicians tell me that a longer campaign period means more illegal election spending, beyond prescribed limits.

In sum, the Election Commission should greatly shrink the election schedule. CCTV cameras and smartphones with all polling officials should expose any attempted booth capture, and ensure a repoll. That should suffice to cut polling time to a few days at most.

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