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Lessons from Indian elections

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President of Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisena arrives ahead of Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony as Prime Minister of India at the President house in New Delhi on May 30, 2019. – India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in Thursday in front of cheering supporters ahead of unveiling a drastically revamped Hindu nationalist government for his historic second term. Modi was the first of more than 50 cabinet ministers and deputy ministers to take the oath of office at the presidential palace in front of 8,000 people including South Asian leaders, Bollywood stars and leading political figures. (Photo by PRAKASH SINGH / AFP)

India is presently in the midst of her general elections and the global attention is rightly focused on the country because of the unique position the country occupies among other democracies in the world.

For more than 70 years the nation of India has fascinated the world with the beauty of her electoral democracy that has the singular distinction as the world’s biggest democracy with intimidating statistics of about 900 million eligible voters, 12 million adhoc electoral staff, over 1 million polling stations and Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) with more than 7,000 candidates contesting on the platforms of over 400 political parties.

The scale of the logistics operations is equally mind boggling with about 120 trains pulling more than 3,000 coaches, over 200,000 buses, SUVs and cars.

Others include, air planes, helicopters, boats, tractors, motorcycles, bullock carts, elephants, etc. The body charged by law to undertake this huge exercise considered as the biggest human operation in the world in the management of a single event is the Election Commission of India (ECI).

The Commission which is reputed to be fiercely independent is made up of only 3 members, comprising of the Chief Electoral Commissioner and two other Electoral Commissioners. It has a total of 800 permanent staff in both the headquarters and the field offices of the Commission.

A cursory comparison of the staffing of our INEC and the ECI in relation to the volume of job they are assigned to perform will leave any right thinking person in utter bewilderment. INEC is charged to conduct election for about 84 million eligible voters.

It has 12 national commissioners (including the Chairman) 37 State Resident Electoral Commissioners, 37 Administrative Secretaries and more than 16,000 permanent staff in various field offices across the country and coordinating the work of about 1 million ad hoc staff.

ECI on the other hand is charged to conduct election for about 900 million eligible voters. It has 3 national commissioners (including the Chairman) and 800 permanent staff with 400 at the headquarters while the remaining 400 are in the field offices of the Commission and coordinating the work of about 12 million ad hoc staff.

The discrepancy and incongruity in the figures between the two Commissions in relation to the volume of job they are performing is shocking and embarrassing to put it mildly. INEC staff strength in comparison to that of ECI has exposed our culture of wastage in public service administration.

As if this is not enough, we have another drain pipe called the State Election Commission which exist in all the 36 states of the federation charged with the duty of conducting only local government elections with the voters list compiled by INEC. Why are we duplicating the job of conducting elections knowing fully well that to conduct any election is usually an expensive exercise? Common sense dictates that INEC should, by law, be made the sole body responsible for the conduct of elections in the country not only to save cost but to standardize the process as is the practice in other climes.

India is also setting the pace for us in electronic voting machines (EVM) which has been in use in that country since 1999. Using EVM means doing away with the cumbersome ballots papers and ballot boxes. It is a battery powered machine that makes the entire voting process easy and simple.

All that the voter is required to do is to click on the relevant button on the EVM and his vote is registered and is issued with a printed piece of paper showing the candidate and the party the voter has voted for.

The paper, known as the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) can be used to crosscheck the result shown by the EVM in the event of a dispute.

The EVM has proved to be a huge success after 20 years in operation. The technology is convenient to handle, cost effective, easy to operate and tamper-proof. We need to move from the Card Reader technology to a new level of EVM by 2023.

The EVM technology is produced locally by a government owned company which makes it easy for Nigeria to seek technical assistance/partnership agreement with the Indian government on the EVM ahead of 2023.

In Indian elections, the voter is the king and is treated as such. The electoral law demands that there must be a polling station within every two (2) kilometers of every human habitation.

The ECI goes to great length to ensure full compliance with this piece of legislation by deploying about 12 million ad hoc electoral staff who must go across glaciers, deserts, jungles and even oceans to reach every voter. For instance, the Commission had to provide a polling unit in a remote forest, the Gir Forest National Park in the Western State of Gujurat for one voter, a Hindu Priest who lives alone in the forest.

In another instance, polling officers had to carry oxygen tanks to reach the village of Ankay Pho, which is 4500 meters above sea level. The lesson here is that no effort is spared by the ECI to reach every eligible voter in spite of the difficulties of doing so to ensure that every vote counts.

Our elections have always been blighted by logistics challenges including the most recent one that forced the sudden postponement of the 2019 general elections which became a big national embarrassment threatening the integrity and capacity of INEC to conduct the elections.

By staggering election into phases according to our geopolitical zones where all the resources available for the national election are deployed to only the geopolitical zones where the elections are taking place, we can be sure of adequate provision of logistics and security for those zones.

It is important that every election has enough security and logistics which are the basis upon which the fairness of the process can be guaranteed. This is why Indian elections are staggered into 7 phases across the vast country over a period of six weeks which will climax with the announcement of election results.

When elections are taking place in all parts of a vast country like ours at the same time, the resources (both human and material) are bound to be overstretched making it impossible to have adequate security and logistics in every required location which has been the bane of our elections in the past.

Agbachi, a public affairs analyst wrote from Abuja.


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