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India Schools Fledgling Democracies in Fair Elections

  • Anjana Pasricha

Polling officers check Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) after collecting them from a distribution centre ahead of the third phase of polls in Kolkata April 26, 2011.

Polling officers check Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) after collecting them from a distribution centre ahead of the third phase of polls in Kolkata April 26, 2011.

The world’s largest democracy, India, is training a host of fledgling democracies from around the world, in the art of conducting elections. With a mammoth electorate of more than 700 million people, India is widely credited with holding free and fair polls.

For the past 47 years, Surinder Kumar Mendiratta, one of the most senior officials in India’s Election Commission, has helped draft laws and systems to hold elections in the country. In recent years, he has been sharing this expertise with nations ranging from Afghanistan and Iraq to Mauritius and Bhutan.

Uncharted territory

Mendiratta says in many of these countries, the conduct of credible polls was uncharted territory.

“Elections are something totally new for them," explained Mendiratta. "They have never been conducting this exercise. The real election, how to set up polling stations, how to enroll the electors, then what type of arrangements, what type of training, what type of problems come, all those things we told them."

Like Mendiratta, other officials in India have been helping several fledgling democracies draft rules, procedures and master the art of election management. In June, the Election Commission established the International Institute for Democracy and Election Management, in New Delhi, to cope with growing requests from many countries to train poll officials. Officials from Kenya were the first to attend a training session here.

New Delhi’s election system is catching broader attention. During a visit to India in July, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington and New Delhi are cooperating to support democratic transitions in many countries from the Middle East to North Africa.

“India’s Election Commission, widely viewed as the global gold standard for running elections is already sharing best practices with counterparts in other countries, including Egypt and Iraq,” Clinton said.

High standards

It has been a long journey for the Election Commission to achieve these high standards. For nearly four decades after the first general election in 1951, violence often marred Indian polls and scores were killed in poll-related incidents.

Charges of fraud and vote-rigging swirled in remote and rural states. In these places, there were complaints of “booth capturing” - the practice in which thugs linked to a political party scared off voters and stuffed ballot boxes with votes cast in favor of the party’s candidate.

But, in the last two decades, the Election Commission has cleaned up its act. Violence was minimized by holding staggered polls over weeks instead of days, so that security forces could move around the vast country to provide security. The 2009 general election was conducted in five stages, over a month.

Modern equipment

Perhaps the most striking difference was made by introducing an electronic voting system. Nationwide, voters now press a button on electronic machines instead of stamping traditional ballot papers.

Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath says the electronic voting machines, or EVM’s, have virtually eliminated fraud and other malpractice.

“Earlier, when it was a ballot box, it was possible for some unruly elements to go in the last half and hour, or 45 minutes, when polling station is wearing a deserted look - what is called booth capturing takes place," Sampath said. "Whatever is uncast votes, they stand and stuff it, all this can be done in a matter of 15 minutes, 20 minutes…EVM’s have acted as a check against booth capturing etc. Machines are very sturdy, even if somebody tries to capture the machine, he cannot destroy the data inside the machine. It can be retrieved.”

Election officials say that, although many developed countries have preferred to stay with paper ballots, they are confident that their machines, made locally, are tamper proof, and are playing a key role in ensuring fair polls in a country with a hugely diverse electorate.

Bhutan and Nepal have also used Indian-made voting machines in recent elections. Some countries, like Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kenya and South Korea, have expressed interesting in buying them.

Free and fair

Elections officials say there are challenges still to be addressed. For example they want to eliminate possibilities of bribing or buying of votes by candidates.

But the overall verdict is that, despite some blips, India’s democratic system is based on free and fair elections.

Officials like Mendiratta are happy that lessons they have learned over the decades are coming in handy for others.

“Everyone looks to India as one of the leaders….that of course we can take pride," Mendiratta said. "We are selling democracy.”

And, more officials like him hope to work with many more countries in coming years, to help democracy take stronger root.

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