For nearly a decade now, the Election Commission of India has been helping fledgling democracies organise elections.

As it went about conducting polls for over 60 years in the world’s largest democracy, India’s Election Commission gained a wealth of experience in dealing with a range of challenges – illiteracy (which means that many voters cannot read the names of candidates on a ballot paper), a low participation of women, violence, the stunning diversity of geography and people.

In 2011, the commission, led by SY Quraishi, decided it was ready to share some of that expertise with other countries. It decided to establish the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management to train India’s own election officials as well as senior election management staff from other countries.

By last December, the institute had conducted 53 international programmes, training over 1,000 election officials from over 30 countries. The greatest interest in the institute’s programmes has been shown by nations that are newly independent or transitioning into democracies, including Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, South Sudan and Myanmar.

For Indian staff, it has held more than 800 programmes.

For the first eight years, the institute functioned out of Nirvachan Sadan, the Election Commission’s headquarters in Delhi. Last December, it moved to a sprawling campus in Dwarka in Southwest Delhi. It finally has room to expand, launch new programmes for the public at large, open a museum and a library, and host visitors in large numbers. This year, about 40 officials from more than 30 countries are visiting India to observe how the general election is being conducted.

A new idea

The idea for structured training for polling staff, and thus the institute, came from chief electoral officers Quraishi met while travelling across the country. Moreover, “requests had started pouring in from other countries to share our best practices and train their election managers”, Quraishi wrote in his book An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election.

The institute's library is still a work in progress. Apart from the Election Commission's manuals and books on elections, it will have books from several foreign counties. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

The institute started in the Election Commission’s junkyard, said Bhagbanprakash, a senior adviser with the poll body who drafted its original framework. It began work on June 17, 2011, from three training rooms and some office space on the seventh floor of Nirvachan Sadan. Condemned furniture and old computers were cleared to make space, which “kept reducing” over the years, said Vivek Khare, director of the institute.

“But even before we had the facilities, we had a brand,” said Bhagbanprakash. “Most Asian and African countries that are newly independent or newly democratic prefer to come here for training.”

Visiting officials are generally trained in election management, voter registration and education, use of technology, inclusive voting and grievance redress. But for the most part, said Bhagbanprakash, the visitors want to know how things are done in India.

For Afghanistan, for instance, the institute suggested India’s strategy of getting women’s queues to move faster by allowing two women to vote before letting in the next man in line, said Noor Mohammad, former deputy election commissioner and now an adviser to the commission and the institute.

“We also advised them to engage women to take photographs and verify identity documents of women voters,” he added.

Recently, Mauritius asked for a note ononline voter registration, which was started in India last year.

The pillars and facade of the institutional block were inspired by the Rashtrapati Bhavan. A hostel and an auditorium are under construction. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

The institute’s trainers are well aware that many countries do not have elections management bodies as powerful or independent as the Election Commission of India, so they customise their training modules accordingly.

“Some governments try to strangulate the election body by squeezing its funds,” said Mohammad. “When we went to Papua New Guinea as observers, we found that voter education funds were released a week before polling. We advised them on short-term measures such as drafting text messages in advance and sending them out the moment funds arrive, and putting up posters with instructions outside polling stations.”

Then “there are different types of democracies” as well, said Khare. In Myanmar’s parliament, 25% seats are reserved for members nominated by the Army, which is also deeply involved in election management.

The institute is organising a series of programmes for Myanmar, which emerged from military rule in 2011. It is likely to hold its next national election in 2020. The Election Commission of India had signed an agreement with its counterpart in Myanmar after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the country in 2017.

“We train them in managing elections but each country follows its own electoral law,” said Mohammad. In the case of Myanmar, there are problems with voter registration in Rakhine state, home to the persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority, as well as areas inhabited by tribal people who do not speak Burmese. “They were advised to appoint intermediaries such as local non-profits, but also have several checks to ensure that the intermediaries are functioning well,” he added.

The institute will house the Election Commission of India's museum, but for now it has an exhibition of some documents and photographs. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

South Sudan is similarly a “grey area”, said Mohammad. The country is rife with ethnic violence and political instability, and is still to conduct its first election after seceding from the Republic of Sudan in 2011. But its top election official left a good impression when he came to the institute with a multi-country delegation last year. “He was the most committed, he was here for every session,” said Bhagbanprakash.

While everyone seems interested in tracking the “use of money power in elections”, the trainers can do little beyond talking about the Indian poll body’s “daily struggle”.

“In some countries, the government funds the campaign,” said Mohammad. “But this problem exists everywhere.”

Plans for expansion

The institute’s 5-acre campus boasts a four-storey institutional block and will soon add an auditorium to seat 450 and a 90-room hostel. Considering it does not hold programmes every day, its capacious training halls and offices are often vacant. But the Election Commission has big plans for it. In its final shape, the institute will be much more than a training facility for polling staff.

It will have eight schools and centres for teaching, developing curricula or supporting research in the fields of electoral law, election management, voter education, technology, e-learning and training. It will have a publication division. It has agreements with several National Law Universities, including Delhi’s, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies to support research in the field of election management and democracy.

While a degree programme is not feasible – “Where will the degree holders go after the course?” Mohammad asked – diploma courses are in the pipeline that could help social activists, political parties, lawyers and journalists.

“We also plan to have short courses of a few credits that can be attached to a full degree programme in law or political science,” Mohammad said.

Vivek Khare, the institute's director, at the exihibition. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

But recruiting the right staff is a challenge. “Our problem is that you don’t get election experts in the open market,” said Mohammad. Currently, 15 of the staff members are retired or serving employees of central or state election bodies. Visiting lecturers are drawn from the same pool or occasionally brought in from international agencies at much greater expense.

The Election Commission of India announced it was hiring last December, advertising 37 posts, three of which are equivalent to teaching positions in central universities. Many more require PhD degrees or research experience.

An election museum

The institute also houses a museum, which for now has a photo exhibition about India’s parliamentary elections since the first in 1951-’52. There are pictures of voters and of polling staff on boats, gingerly stepping onto rope bridges and awkwardly balanced on elephants, hugging electronic voting machines to their chests, faces stiff with concentration and worry.

Delhi already has an election museum, set up in 2016 by the institute’s director general, Chandra Bhushan Kumar, when he was Delhi’s Chief Electoral Officer. That museum has loaned the institute a December 1956 notification detailing the budget for holding elections – Rs 35,000 for a two-member parliamentary constituency, Rs 25,000 for a single-member one. Two-member constituencies ceased to exist in 1961.

Eventually, the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management hopes to get central and state election offices as well as foreign nations to contribute archival material, photographs and books to the collection. Eventually, says Khare, the institute aims to build a museum that will “showcase international practices and democracy in general”.

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