Since Tuesday, as the US has anxiously waited for votes to be be counted in its presidential elections, several Indians have half-jokingly taken to social media to advise Americans to outsource their poll process to the Election Commission of India.
Over the decades, the ECI has earned praise from observers around the world for the efficient manner in which it conducts the world’s most complex polling exercises. The 2019 general election, for instance, involved 911 million eligible voters of whom 67% came out to the booths. Officials used elephants, boats, helicopters and in one case in Arunachal Pradesh trekked up a steep hillside to set up 3.96 million electronic voting machines in 1,035,918 booths.
The Indian election was conducted in seven phases. It took four days after the last phase on May 19 for results to be announced on May 23.
As the US awaits its final results, some believe that the US has a lesson or two to learn from the ECI.
There’s no doubt that the Election Commission of India does a very efficient job with the logistics of polling and counting votes.
It is pertinent to note, however, the US system’s delayed results were expected in a year where a pandemic is still raging, and were partly caused because America offers citizens ways to vote without having to line up on Election Day, including sending ballots through the post. India only gives this privilege to a tiny set of voters – government servants and those in the armed forces – leaving millions of internal migrants with no easy way to vote if they are not at home on election day.
Even more importantly, as others have pointed out, democracy involves more than the exercise of merely conducting elections. When it comes to ensuring that elections are held in a free and fair environment, the ECI’s record leaves something to be desired.
In April last year, Scroll.in had reported on a barrage of complaints that the ECI had received about violations of the Model Code of Conduct that parties and candidates in the fray are expected to follow.
“Already, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of mentioning the actions of the armed forces and invoking religious identities to garner votes, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been accused of misusing state-run broadcasters for its campaign and the Rajasthan governor has been found to have made a partisan appeal in support of the prime minister,” Scroll.in reported.
In another article, Scroll.in reported that the government’s NITI Aayog think tank had sent emails asking bureaucrats in Union territories and at least one Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state to send the Prime Minister’s Office inputs on local area knowledge ahead of Modi’s campaign rallies in these places.
The Model Code expressly states that “ministers shall not combine their official visit with electioneering work and shall not also make use of official machinery or personnel during the electioneering work”.
After Election Commission official Ashok Lavasa dissented with the panel’s decision to give a clean chit to Modi and current Home Minister Amit Shah in the complaints against them, his wife, son and sister were put under the scanner by the Income Tax department.
Though Lavasa was in line to become Chief Election Commissioner, he decided to resign from the panel in August to take up a position at the Asian Development Bank.
In addition, the Election Commission has faced criticism for its inability to overturn the BJP’s opaque electoral bond scheme, which ensures anonymity for donors to political parties.
Indians offering advice to the US on their vote counting process would do well to remember that India has recently been criticised for transitioning into a “psephocracy” – a country that conducts elections efficiently but without being underpinned by the liberal values that truly define a democracy.