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Saturday, November 22, 2003

dir="ltr">The impending elections to Legislative Assemblies in four major states, the dissolution of AP Assembly and the approaching Lok Sabha elections have significantly increased the political temperature in the country. While there is a natural curiosity about the outcome of these elections, most people’s concern is somewhat superficial. The general feeling is that the choice in most cases is between Tweedledom and Tweedledee, and much of the discussion is to whet our gamblers’ instincts – predicting who will win, and who will lose! This apathy is a result of our cumulative experience which taught us an invaluable lesson – that no matter who wins, we, the people, always end up losing, and all that happens is a mere change of players! The rules of the game remain largely unchanged.

There has been a vigorous debate on criminalization of politics and illegitimate use of excessive and unaccounted money power in elections. Several sensible and practical suggestions have been made over the years, and contrary to popular prejudices, things are actually improving. The mandatory disclosure of antecedents of candidates is slowly forcing parties to reject persons with dubious record. The changes in the political funding law for the first time provide an opportunity to recognized parties to honestly raise resources for legitimate campaign purposes. While the impact of these changes can only be felt over time, cumulatively they will help restore the legitimacy of the political process to some extent. Surely a lot more remains to be done to ensure fairer representation, encourage entry of decent and honorable candidates into the political process, and allow honesty to coexist with survival in public office.

But in this debate, the various easily remediable flaws in voter registration distorting our elections have been largely ignored. 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 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 Kolkatha 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.

Given this unhappy situation, use of money and muscle power, and false voting have become endemic. All leading parties tend to put up similar candidates who can muster money and muscle power and local caste clout to stand a chance of getting elected. A system of compensatory errors operates, by which the voting fraud and malpractices of one candidate are neutralized by those of his rival! Thus, while the aggregate results are broadly reflective of public opinion, the constituency-level picture is alarming. Decent candidates are increasingly shunning politics in this climate.

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. Even the aggregate number of voters registered shows serious defects in electoral rolls. About 45 percent of the population in India is below 18 years of age, and on an average 55 percent should be registered as voters. But our overall percentage of electors is 63.35! This hides a greater distortion, because the aggregate numbers do not reveal the actual wrongful omissions and inclusions in the rolls. Only the net effect is seen in such gross numbers. Even then, in certain states the percentage of population registered as voters is very high – 79% in Tamil Nadu, 72.54% in AP, 71% in Karnataka and Kerala, and 70% in Orissa. True, slower population growth rates in Southern states mean a higher proportion of population above 18 years. Even then, the percentage of electors is clearly higher than justified.

Happily, 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.



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