A YouTube video shows a 97-year-old retired schoolteacher walking through snow to vote in a remote hilly region in India. Cricket heroes and Bollywood actors are seen in selfies proudly showing the finger (with the indelible ink stain that is proof of voting). Following a landmark judgement, the sex of 28,000 transgender voters is now categorised as neither male nor female but ‘others’. For the first time, voters have the option of choosing ‘none of the above’ candidates.
These are just a few of the quirky aspects of India’s election process that is slowly winding down after a bitter and hard fought political battle. The results will be declared on 16th May.
The number of voters in India (814 million) is more than the voting population of the United States, Europe and Japan combined. So how are elections conducted on such a massive scale — with more than 10 million officials and security personnel conducting polling in nearly a million polling stations across 543 constituencies in the country?
The Election Commission of India has developed a very detailed methodology to conduct elections. Like any good bureaucracy, they have rules for everything. The ‘Handbook for Candidates’ is 377 pages long! But it’s a bureaucracy that works. The Commission has consistently delivered free and fair elections and earned the recognition of both the public and the political parties.
The elections are conducted on nine days over a period of a month. It is one of the most complex logistical exercises anywhere in the world. Technology is being increasingly used to make the process more efficient. For one, it is a paperless election. 3.5 million electronic voting machines are used to register the choice of the voters. These machines have been made specially in India and can display the names of up to 64 candidates and their symbols! These days one can also register online as a voter.
Another innovation is the degree of transparency that is required of candidates. The rules make it obligatory for all candidates to make public various details like their educational qualifications, criminal records and their assets and liabilities, including those of their spouses and dependents. This allows the voter to make a more informed choice. There is also a maximum limit on how much a candidate can spend on the campaign and each candidate has to open a separate bank account for this purpose.
But elections are not an end in themselves. People say that this election in India marks a watershed in the preferences of the voter.
People have voted in record numbers in this election, with voting percentages upto 10% higher than last time in 2009. This is no mean feat. It is not easy to persuade a voter that his or her vote actually counts when 1.5 million voters elect one member of Parliament!
India has one of the youngest populations in the world. Fifty percent of Indians are below the age of 25. This time there are 100 million new voters and the high voting percentages suggest that the youth of the country are speaking up.
India’s youth want their elected representatives to speak directly to them and to be relevant to their hopes and dreams for the future. They want jobs and skills to help them move up the social and economic ladder. The biggest challenge political parties face is how to connect with this new and young India. The old slogans aren’t working. Parties are using innovative social media campaigns to reach India’s 200 million (mostly young) internet users.
Some years back, some Indian cities witnessed social protests that brought many people on the streets. It was the voice of the middle class that spoke through these protests. Corruption and inflation are issues that agitate the middle class everywhere in the developing world. The rising middle class, whether in rural or urban India, is also defining politics in a new way. It is the politics of water, electricity, roads, health and education not of religion, community or ideology.
The same protesters who spent nights protesting on the streets are today serious candidates in the elections. That is the beauty of India’s democracy – it is the large banyan tree under which everyone finds a place.
There is a political spring in India. But it is a peaceful spring that has moved from the streets of Delhi to the ballot box. It is an electoral spring.