As Gopalkrishna Gandhi, an Indian scholar and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, aptly described, “India is valued the world over for a great many things, but for three over others: the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi and India’s electoral democracy.”
India has been a democratic country since its independence. With more than 132 crore citizens, it ranks the 2nd most populous country in the world. Elections form the bedrock of the world’s largest democracy. During independent India’s first general elections in 1952, separate ballot boxes were used for every candidate. A decade later, in 1962, India introduced the common paper ballot for all candidates in a constituency and voters marked their preference. Electronic voting machines (EVMs) were introduced in all State Assembly elections in 1998 and in 2004 in the parliamentary elections. In 2013, we added the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, which is essentially a printer attached to the electronic voting machines that allows each voter to print out a piece of paper that shows which candidate he or she voted for.
Democratic nations organise elections where people have a say on the kind of government that will safeguard all their interests. Therefore, the elected leaders have a responsibility of ensuring that the country is run in the most efficient way which brings about prosperity. Most ancient democratic societies such as the Greeks, allowed people to participate in the election processes. However, the current societies have millions of people in different countries hence indirect democracies are practiced where people elect their representatives to run all affairs on their behalf. However, certain nations have a monarchical system where a few elites govern the country, and the leadership of the nation is hereditary. In such cases, most rulers use the dictatorship means, and people have no say in any of the government affairs. Therefore, the elections are typically conducted since people cannot have direct control of the affairs hence they elect their representatives. With regard to the above assertions, the essay herein discusses the importance of elections.
Elections provide the common citizens a chance to assert their opinions, views and choose the person whose ideas or thought matches with them. Elections help in solving leadership scramble. Most democratic nations exhibit high population hence many people want to be leaders. Therefore, people elect a representative government at a regular period such as five years. Thus, people participate in the election process where they elect their representatives in parliament and senate. These representative leaders have to look after the welfare of their own people to ensure unity, progress, and prosperity and keep the integrity of the nation as a whole. Secondly, people conduct an election to safeguard their freedom and rights. The destiny of a particular nation is vested on freedom and rights of people to scrutinise the government at the time as well as give better ways of solving problems through their representatives. On a separate note, election process ensures a change in leadership. Citizens of a democratic nation normally have their voice and resentment against the ruling government hence they can vote for other parties to form a new government. Even though there are numerous advantages of the elections in democratic nations, a majority of people especially in the developing countries have not fully realised such advantages. These people are not educated on the importance of choosing good leaders. Thus, they fall prey to selfish representatives who work for selfish gains for a five-year term and do nothing for the people and wait for the last minute and rush back with money to buy votes or coax voters with empty promises. The voters with time lose interest. Consequently, the leaders practice authoritarianism, autocracy which results in loss of aspirations for the citizens.
Elections in India are conducted by the Election Commission of India, a fiercely autonomous body set up by the Indian Constitution in 1950. The Chief Election Commissioner and two Election Commissioners are appointed by the President for a term of six years or till they attain 65 years of age. They are generally senior civil servants from the Indian Administrative Service. Over seven decades of independent India, the Commission has conducted 17 elections for the Lower House of the Parliament and over 360 elections for State Legislative Assemblies. The Commission has, at times, worked in the most trying circumstances. In 1982, it had to conduct elections for the State Assembly in the northeastern state of Assam at the height of a violent agitation that had roiled the region for years. Similarly, the Commission conducted several elections in Jammu and Kashmir despite long-running violence in the region.
General elections are the biggest exercise in managing a single event anywhere in the world. There are a million polling stations across India. About 12 million polling staff members are deployed. Over 120 trains with more than 3,000 coaches, 2,00,000 buses and cars are used to transport people and election related materials across the country. And it is not just buses and trains: you also have to hire airplanes, helicopters, boats, tractors, motorcycles, bullock carts and mules, elephants and camels as well for transportation. All this is done to ensure a peaceful, free and fair process. The Commission deploys federal armed police and paramilitary forces to safeguard the election process. They are considered neutral and fair because they are not deployed in their home states. For nearly two decades, all Indian political parties have been demanding that these federal forces be deployed in their constituencies. But the availability of these forces is limited and they have to be rotated across the country, which necessitates multiple-phase elections. It is to ensure that there is no voter intimidation, that no political actors try to sabotage the polling through interference, intimidation or violence or booth capturing—armed thugs hired by a political party would seize control of a polling place and stuff ballot boxes—which was widespread two decades ago.
The Commission does everything to reach every last voter. Election rules require that no Indian citizen should have to travel more than two kilometres to vote, whether they live on the world’s highest mountains or on a desolate island. Thousands of polling officials often walk for two or three days to reach polling stations, which might be otherwise inaccessible. Every vote counts. A polling booth was, therefore, set up in remote Gir Forest National Park in the western state of Gujarat for the only voter living there: a Hindu priest. The polling officials wait for him to come and vote at any time he chooses. In the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, on the border with China, polling officials hike for a day to reach Malogam village, where one woman is registered to vote. In Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir, a polling station is set up at an altitude of 4,327 metres for 12 voters. Polling officials carry oxygen tanks to reach the village of Anlay Pho, which is 4,500 metres above sea level. In the southernmost Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Indian Ocean, polling officials set up polling stations for nine voters after travelling through swamps infested with crocodiles.
In a huge country with prolonged, phased elections, minimum standards of behaviour are essential for peace, freedom and fairness of the process. To ensure this, the Commission has created a set of guidelines known as the Model Code of Conduct, which evolved with the consensus of political parties. The Commission enforces the code of conduct right from the day it announces the election schedule. The code is not a law, but it carries great moral authority, which makes it very effective. If the Commission censures a candidate or a politician for breaching the code of conduct, it can have a serious effect on his or her political fortunes by inviting negative public opinion. In conclusion, elections have a greater impact on developing strong democracies since people have an ultimate say in the way they want to be governed. Besides, it allows them to exercise their rights and freedom while ensuring political participation, thus keeping a check on the government. However, some democratic nations do not follow this noble criterion. Instead, leaders elected are irresponsible and only fulfil their own vested interests and opt for dictatorship, autocracy and forced democracy, and in the end, people lose hope from their democratic government.