After three phases of polling involving millions of people concluded last week, the counting of votes will begin in Bihar on Tuesday. The numbers will begin to roll in starting 8 am, and if the past few elections are anything to go by, we should know who is winning by early afternoon at the latest.
Coming less than a week after the US elections – which saw results trickle in slowly with a winner not being declared for nearly four whole days – the contrasts in the process of vote counting between the two countries have already been made. More than a few Indians took to Twitter advising the US to learn from India’s Election Commission, which usually is able to provide major results in a matter of hours.
While India’s Election Commission is undoubtedly a remarkably successful institution, which manages to conduct voting all over the country, often in challenging situations. This involves five million workers – government teachers, clerks, engineers and more – doing their bit to ensure that voting in the world’s largest democracy goes off smoothly, as we recounted in our series, the Silent Army, in 2019.
But it is important not to confuse the successful conduct of the elections, or the efficient counting of with the features of a robust democracy. As many have said before, democracy is about much more than the casting of a vote – and certainly more complex than counting them.
While it is possible to appreciate the work of the Election Commission, both at the Centre and in each of the states, as well as be relieved at the fact that legalised voter suppression is not a major tactic used by parties – though in 2019 the government did seek to raise questions about the citizenship of Muslims – here are a few aspects of Indian democracy we should hope to strengthen.
1. Efficiency is not transparency
India’s Election Commission is extremely efficient, in large part because of the Electronic Voting Machines that function smoothly and making tallying of votes easy. India depends heavily on these low-cost, non-networked machines for elections to go off smoothly, though it has added the Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail – an attached machine that prints out a slip confirming that the button you pressed was the same as the vote that was registered – to allay concerns about malfunctioning.
EVMs are widely trusted and have tended to be reliable, though every election tends to have a few stories of malfunctioning ones. Over the last few years, the Opposition in India has sought to raise questions about whether the machines are being hacked, claiming that they are biased towards the Bharatiya Janata Party, albeit while offering little evidence.
These claims have mostly been dropped recently, not least because the Opposition has done rather well in certain state elections, and have gained the impression of being the complaints of sore losers.
Put aside those grand claims of conspiracy, however, and you still have major concerns about the functioning of EVMs. Any electronic machines can be hacked, even if it would be exceedingly hard to get to every single EVM since they are not networked, and there have been serious enough doubts raised that ought to be answered.
The Election Commission has tried to deflect all questions about the EVMs by claiming the concerns are politicised, when in fact it is in the interests of citizens everywhere for transparency regarding EVMs – including about the design of the machines and whether the software has been audited.
- Scroll Explainer: All you need to know about the questions surrounding EVMs
2. Political funding and spending
Of course, you don’t even need to rig elections if you can rig funding – at least to some extent. Free and fair elections depends heavily on a level playing field for those in the fray, much of which has to do with access to funds.
Historically, research in India has suggested that spending more is not directly correlated with winning elections. But in recent times, the importance of mass advertising, branding and messaging, as well as the expensive needs of an efficient ground game, have made securing large amounts of funding for campaigning much more important.
Political funding has always been opaque in India. But the BJP governement, under the guise of bringing transparency, introduced a new instrument called ‘electoral bonds’. These bonds allow anyone to provide money to political parties, in any amount, without the need to declare who they are to either the party or the public at large. In fact, their introduction came was accompanied by the BJP removing political funding guidelines that had made it harder for shell companies to funnel money into political parties, and making it easier for foreign companies to donate funds.
The Election Commission as well as the Reserve Bank of India have already flagged major concerns about this approach, saying it was regressive, would have a “serious impact” on transparency, and could allow for “unchecked foreign funding”. Moreover, it comes with an automatic advantage for the ruling party, since they are likely to be the only ones who can track which companies are donating to political parties.
No wonder that the BJP appears to have received the overwhelming bulk of electoral bonds in the past.
- Scroll xplainer: What we now know about the BJP’s secretive electoral bonds scheme after a week of exposes
3. ‘Universal’ suffrage
The reason the US appeared to take so long to count votes this year around was because authorities had made efforts for citizens to be able to cast their ballots even if they don’t want to go out and wait in line on election day, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. That caused a huge surge in voting by other means – early voting as well as ballots sent in by post – with more than 100 million choosing these approaches.
As a result, as expected, counting of ballots took much larger than before.
In India, postal ballots are only accepted in a small number of cases, such as government servants and those in the armed forces. Nearly everyone else is expected to physically return to their domicile to vote.
In a country where tens of millions migrate internally every year, often without being able to easily register in the place they migrate to, this effectively disenfranchises a huge swathe of the population. This is particularly true for Bihar, where a huge amount of the working age population leaves the state seasonally every year, and also extremely relevant in a year where the migrant workers and their concerns appeared to be one of the top stories.
The Election Commission did expand the categories of those allowed to use postal ballots for the Bihar election in light of the pandemic. But they were still restrictive, and very few chose to use them.
As Rukmini S writes, “when it comes to accommodating the votes of those who can’t make it to the booth on polling day, India has more to learn from the US than to teach”.
4. Independent institutions and reliable representatives
Jokes about why a Joe Biden victory – involving the challenge getting a slim majority in terms of representatives – would not happen in India tell us much about the electoral process and expectations of it.
One suggestion was that the Central Bureau of Invesetigation, Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax Department would have long ago been unleashed against the Democratic party. Incumbent US President Donald Trump did try to get the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open cases against his opponents over the course of the election campaign, but the agency refused to say if they would or not – angering the president. In India few would expect agency officials to push back against any demands from the political class to act, even if in a partisan manner.
The other was that even if Biden were to win with a close margin, he wouldn’t really win. The Republicans could have simply convinced a few Democrats to jump ship and vote the other way. That is exactly what happened in Madhya Pradesh earlier this year, where, after the BJP lost elections to the Congress in 2019, it still returned to power by engineering several defections.
The tactic is not unique to the BJP, but is heavily influenced by which party has more access to political funds, which as we have mentioned do not provide a level playing field. This has meant “resort politics” – when lawmakers are shunted off to hotels to prevent them from being poached by the other side – is distressingly familiar. India even has an anti-defection law to preven this from happening, though it has ended up doing little to stop defections, while contributing to the larger devaluation of Parliament and the legislative assemblies.
If institutions and representatives can be so easily ‘managed’ by the ruling dispensation, how democratic is the process?
- Also read: Has the anti-defection law hollowed out India’s representative democracy?
The American elections were ultimately “called” not by an Election Commission, since that is not how it works in the US, but by prominent media outlets. This included the extremely right-wing Fox News still calling the election for Democrat Joe Biden, even though this move angered Trump and his team in the White House. And of course, in the run-up to the election, though there were plenty of examples of extremely partisan coverage, the media also managed to provide careful scrutiny of both sides as well as the election process itself, including calling out the president for blatant lies.
Few expect the Indian news media to do any such thing. While some outlets manage to raise questions about the actions of the government, the Indian mainstream media has by and large become blatantly partisan in favour of the ruling dispensation – with the top channels often willingly playing along with openly communal rhetoric or anti-democratic language.
Then there’s the Election Commission itself. Though the body has managed to efficiently conduct voting every year, there are questions about how fair it is as a referee. The Commission is responsible for deciding whether politicians have been following the model code of conduct and ensuring a level playing field, and there have been serious questions about its functioning on this account.
All of this brings us to the question of whether the referees meant to act as a check on the excesses particularly of those in power, to ensure that elections go off successfully, are doing their job.
- Also read: 10 reasons why public trust in the Election Commission stands eroded