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May 02, 2019 Thursday 03:06:07 PM IST

Festival of Demos

Expert Counsel

The great Indian election season is on and the entire media- print, visual and social- is flooded with news and reports about the processes and campaign in the run-up to the polls. The elections for constituting the 17th Lok Sabha is to be held in seven phases. The counting of votes is scheduled to take place on 23 May and the results are expected to be announced during the course of that day and the next. Elections to the legislative assemblies of the States of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh are also being held along with the polls to Lok Sabha.

 General elections to the lower house of Indian Parliament is the largest of such exercises undertaken in the world. With as many as 900 million registered voters electing their representatives from 543 constituencies spread over the length and breadth of the country, this is an exercise in logistics and planning that has no parallels anywhere else. The gusto with which political parties launch into the electoral battle, the campaign strategies that they adopt and the festive mood that envelops the nation as the day of polling draws near, makes this an amazing spectacle that never ceases to astound observers from abroad.

 Emergency blues

 The first general election that I remember clearly is the historic one that took place in 1977. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared ‘Emergency’ in June 1975, which led to suspension of fundamental rights, censorship of the media and extension of the tenure of Lok Sabha. She surprised one and all by suddenly announcing, in January 1977, her decision to hold the polls for Lok Sabha in the month of March. After a brief period of confusion in their ranks, leaders of all parties in the Opposition came together to form Janata Party to contest against the Indira Gandhi-led Congress party. Incidentally, the elections to the Kerala legislature was also held along with the general elections of 1977.


 As a child brought up in Kerala, I was not aware of the impact of Emergency on the democratic polity of the nation. The only conspicuous change in the life around me was the absence of strikes and hartals. I also noticed that newspapers had become thinner in size, though I was not unduly perturbed as coverage of sports, my main area of interest, remained unaffected. However, after announcement of elections, coverage of politics in dailies increased perceptibly though there was hardly any mention about the ill-effects of Emergency.

 Celebration time

 I distinctly remember the evening of March 20 when the results of the elections started coming in. A friend of mine told me that results were being announced at a specially constructed podium on the premises of the office of a prominent Malayalam newspaper near my house. When I went there, I found that the entire atmosphere was surcharged. The members of the two major political Fronts in Kerala were having their camps on either side with the neutral observers standing in between. Whenever an announcement was made, the group to which the winner belonged would burst crackers and celebrate, while the other side would go silent. Since most of the results announced were of the elections to the Kerala legislature and the Congress party-led Front was heading for a big majority, it appeared as if only one group had reason to celebrate, with the other side growing more disillusioned as the evening progressed to night.

 However, a gradual change in the trend became discernible as the results of the Lok Sabha elections from north India started trickling in. It became evident that the newly formed Janata Party was giving a good fight to Congress in the bigger States north of the Vindhyas. Then, suddenly, at 10.30 pm, came the announcement, “We have unconfirmed reports that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi are trailing behind their Janata Party rivals by huge margins in the constituencies of Rae Bareli and Amethi in Uttar Pradesh”. I can still recall the silence brought by the shock that extended for the most part of a minute. This was unbelievable stuff and everyone present there seemed shocked, stunned and startled by this development.


 

By the time I got back home that night, it was evident that the ruling Congress Party was on their way out of power, as the results from north India indicated that they were facing a rout there. Both Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay lost at the hustings as did many senior Cabinet Ministers. Indira Gandhi revoked Emergency and submitted her resignation soon thereafter, following which the Janata Party government,led by Morarji Desai as Prime Minister, took office.

 Peak of excitement

 The excitement that I had witnessed in those few hours in front of the newspaper office hooked me on to politics for life. I started following the developments in the political field closely, through newspapers and other magazines that made their advent around this period. Hence, when the next general elections were held in December 1979, I parked myself at the same location to know the results without any delay. This time, the electorate favoured Indira Gandhi by giving her a sweeping majority and the Janata Party crumbled in the face of ire of voters against the poor performance of their government.


 Television had made its entry to most of the middle-class households by the time general elections were held in 1984. This meant that there were active discussions in the idiot box between experts as well as representatives of political parties. This was also the first time one heard about psephology, which is a branch of political science that deals with study of elections and the trends seen therein. The elections saw Rajiv Gandhi leading Congress Party to victory with a huge majority.

 Many significant changes have taken place in the conduct of elections in the country, the run-up to the polls and the announcement of results, the most significant one being the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM’s) in 2004, which made the process of counting simple and quick. The results are presently available within 3-4 hours after starting of counting as compared to the period of 18-24 hours or more that it took during the days when ballot papers used to be stuffed in specially designed boxes. Opinion polls and their more recent cousin, the exit polls, also made their entry into the arena, as pollsters tried hard to make their predictions as accurate as possible. The advent of new channels and the competitive spirit with which they operate have ensured that election-based programmes remained interesting and lively.

 Fake news

 There have been a few adverse consequences as well. One such recent development has been the emergence of ‘fake news’ and ‘paid news’ where advertisements of individuals/ parties are masqueraded as true reports of independent journalists. Questions have also been raised about the security of EVMs and whether they could be subjected to tampering and manipulation. Election Commission has attempted to assuage them by introducing the concept of Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT).


 However, the fact remains that the average Indian voter has shown a level of maturity and judgement that has baffled observers. They have voted out governments that did not deliver what was promised and become increasingly impatient and more demanding. The use of money and muscle power has seldom yielded longstanding results and those who indulged in such practices have invariably come to grief sooner than later. Indian citizen has made it clear time and again that he cannot be taken for granted and that the political party or grouping that they vote to power must perform for them to seek another term in office.

 During the last general elections held in 2014, I paid a visit to the premises in front of the old newspaper office, which was the venue of great excitement in 1977. There were announcements of election results but there was no podium nor were there any camps of rival political parties. The crowd too was meagre and it was apparent that most people preferred to watch the election results on the television, inside the comfort of their homes or offices. But, irrespective of the location and the medium that communicates the results, elections in India offer a combination of thrill, festivity and drama that few other events can match and it is this unique vibrancy that forms the core of the character of Indian democracy. 


Dr. K N Raghavan

The writer is the CEO of NORKA ROOTS, India
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