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Tuesday, February 3, 2004

The world’s largest democracy today is facing a peculiar problem. There is great uncertainty that has come to mark the timing of the elections in India. Everyone including the Election Commission is only talking in terms of probable dates of elections. This uncertainty is not due to the indecision on the part of the party leaders regarding the dissolution of legislatures. Rather, the uncertainty of the timing of elections is because no one in India exactly knows as to when we would have a complete updated electoral list of all the constituencies in the country. While the ruling party at the Union wants an early election, the statements of Election Commission are to the contrary. On the other hand, states like Andhra Pradesh are under extended periods of caretaker rule, as elections could not be held at the earliest due to inaccurate electoral rolls. This does not portend well for democracy. While the uncertainty of election date might blunt the tactical advantage that a ruling party may enjoy, the continuation of caretaker governments over extended periods goes against the ethos of democracy. Further, the Union and the State governments have the right to call for elections as and when they deem it necessary, given our Westminster model. Just imagine a possible scenario where the Union or a State government would like to have early elections in Jammu and Kashmir or in other parts of the country to ascertain the people’s opinion. The inability to hold elections merely because the electoral rolls are not ready will have grave impact on the national security. Further, we do not have the mechanism of a referendum through which people’s opinion could be established on a given issue of national importance. In such circumstances, holding elections is the only viable way through which public opinion can be determined and if elections get postponed indefinitely then gauging public opinion becomes difficult. Even if a referendum were feasible, it would still require credible electoral rolls.

The delay in preparing the electoral list has certainly resulted in delay in operationalizing the people’s choice on the party to govern. Even more importantly, the irregularities in electoral rolls are undermining the people’s verdict. For instance, a large sample survey (over 40,000 voters) by Lok Satta in Andhra Pradesh in 2000 showed an error margin of over 15 percent in voter registration in rural areas. Over 10 percent of the names have been wrongfully included (dead or fictitious persons, and those who no longer reside in the locality), and about 5 percent of the eligible persons have been excluded from the electoral rolls (persons attaining 18 years of age by January 1, or moved into the area). In urban areas, the picture is even more appalling, with 26 percent of the names wrongfully included, and 19 percent of the voters names were excluded. Clearly, a system which allows such gross errors is less than adequate, and electoral verdicts are bound to be distorted.

A survey of five polling stations in Hyderabad city after the 1999 polls showed that even in areas with moderate polling (about 55 percent), and no complaints of rigging or violence, about 8 percent of the votes cast were clearly ‘bogus’ (persons have not voted, or have left the city or country). In addition, about 13 percent of those who are reported to have voted no longer live in the area, and several of them may not have voted. Clearly, there is a correlation between faulty electoral rolls and fraudulent voting. Even introduction of voter identity cards is not an adequate safeguard against collusion or coercion of the polling staff and party agents. In the 2001 Assembly elections in Kolkata city, about 45 percent of all the complaints received by a Lok Satta Help Line were to the effect that the legitimate voters with identity cards could not cast their votes as someone had already voted in their names by personation! When we consider that the average polling is about 60 percent, and the victory margins are usually around 5-10 percent, we can imagine the impact of poor voter registration and voting fraud on the electoral verdicts.

While systemic reforms are necessary to address this crisis, simple, practical remedies to improve access to voter registration will significantly alter the nature of our elections. A major problem with the current method is that it does not allow the citizen to initiate the voter registration process, as it is the governmental machinery that sets the time and place of registration. Moreover, the time and place of registration fixed by the government is not known to all citizens.  This government initiated registration process has in effect become a barrier to participation in the democratic process. We do not suggest that the whole voter registration process should be based only on the self-initiation of the citizens. There are many examples in the world where the proactive role of the state has yielded good results in voter registration. For instance, the United States Motor Voter Act enabled different state and federal agencies to provide voter registration forms to the citizens whenever they visit these agencies. This has resulted in substantial increase in the percentage of legitimate voters. Hence, we need a combination of government initiated and self initiated voter registration processes.

Happily, for us in India, there is a simple, voter-friendly answer to the problem of voter registration. If the local post office is made a nodal agency for registration, access and fairness will dramatically improve. We have about 250,000 post offices all over India. Our postal system is widely acclaimed for its efficiency, access, user-friendliness and honesty. A post office is one of the few public institutions approached by ordinary citizens without fear or anxiety! If voter rolls are available locally, and the post office is made the nodal agency for voter registration and correction of defects, there will be a dramatic improvement. This convergence of services has become common practice in many places. In Kerala, the postal network helped in voter verification with great success. In the US, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Hongkong, the post office is effectively used for voter registration. In Germany, the citizen has to apply for a passport only at the local municipal office. Such convergence has become the norm in many countries.

Years of advocacy in India has persuaded both the Election Commission and the postal department to make the post office the nodal agency for voter registration. It may take time before the process is fully underway. But as a nation we need to look at convergence of many such services. The geographic spread, easy access, knowledge-base and wide acceptability of the vast postal network can be leveraged effectively for delivering many services much better, enriching our democracy, improving governance, and accelerating growth.