(JG Graphics/ Modina Rimolfa)

Commentary: The Continued Perseverance of India, the Wonder Republic, at 65

JANUARY 26, 2015

Think India, and two words spring to mind: democracy and republic. That India is the world’s largest republic is common knowledge. What is lesser known, however, is that republic is in India’s DNA.

We had republics in India prior to the oldest known republics like the ancient Athens (508–322 BC) and the Roman Republic (c. 509–27 BC). The most notable of these is the Vaijjian Confederacy in Vaishali, Bihar state, in around 600 BC. Since then, we have found recurring evidence of republics in India. In 1830, Sir Charles Metcalfe, the then acting governor general of India wrote: “The village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they want within themselves and almost independent of any foreign relations.”

It is these self contained, self governing village republics that have ensured the continuity and survival of the great Indian civilization, which even the mightiest of empires could never penetrate.

Today, the world’s biggest republic consists of half a million tiny village republics managing their affairs through self governance called the Panchayati Raj (the rule of the village community). India now basks in 64 years of republican glory. It will be interesting to retrospect over these momentous years.

A vibrant electoral democracy has been India’s most enduring and endearing identity ever since the country adopted a  great constitution that made it a democratic republic with universal adult suffrage. This was considered by the developed countries as a foolhardy misadventure. Their skepticism was based on the ground realities of the time. India had just been devastated by a deadly partition in which millions of lives were lost. It was an unequal, fractured caste-based hierarchical society with 84 percent illiteracy and extreme poverty. How could they rule themselves?

But India took to democracy like a fish takes to water, adjusting itself to the new environment of freedom and democracy in no time. India went on to prove Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s famous statement that a country does not become fit for democracy; it becomes fit through democracy.

Over the past 64 years, the Election Commission of India (ECI) has delivered sixteen elections to the Lok Sabha (the House of the People) and over 360 elections to State Legislative Assemblies without missing a single deadline. Peaceful, orderly and democratic transfer of power has been the envy of the entire democratic world. The outgoing prime minister (or chief minister) offering the chair to his or her successor with humility and folded hands has been a sight which many democracies only long to  see.

The 14th general election, in May 2014, was the biggest election in world history. As many as 554 million of 834 million registered voters exercised their rights at 931,986 polling booths, on 1.8 million electronic voting machines (EVMs). In sheer size, the Indian electorate is bigger than the combined voter population of each continent. In fact, it is like 90 countries rolled into one, not just in terms of numbers alone but the complexities as well.

And the numbers are always growing. The general elections of 2014 saw the addition of over 118 million voters since 2009. In terms of the voter turnout, this is like adding the entire population of Pakistan, or South Africa and South Korea combined!

India is undoubtedly the most diverse country in the world; it is multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-ethnic in addition to being geographically diverse — with deserts, mountains, plains, forests, islands, and coastal areas. We have all the world’s major religions, 22 official languages and 780 spoken languages. The demands of this diversity can be mind boggling. Equally difficult are the other challenges of fighting terrorism, security threats, adjusting to globalization and rising expectations of IT savvy growing middle class.

Inclusion and participation are the key features of the republic

Elections can be truly free and fair only if they are inclusive, socially just and participative. During the 64 years of our democratic history, the voter turnout has remained around 55-60 percent, definitely far less than what ECI aspires to achieve.

To address this, ECI came up with a Systematic Voters’ Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP) wing that rolls out multi-media campaigns to bring all citizens — especially the urban upper and middle class, the youth and women — into electoral participation.

Dramatic results followed. During the last four years every state and the national election saw record turnouts, in most cases the highest in history!

National Voters Day was one of the highlights of the program focussing on the youth turning 18. A drive was launched to locate such youths well in advance and on Jan. 25 ( the founding day of the ECI) all 800,000 polling stations celebrated National Voters Day (NVD).

The first NVD was inaugurated by the President of India on Jan. 25, 2011, in the presence of chief election commissioners of over thirty countries. The beauty of the program is that for this countrywide celebration, not a single extra rupee was demanded. We used funds for electoral registration activities but converted it into a major national “event.”

Many countries evinced interest in this unique, zero-cost but effective model and some subsequently adopted it.

Use of technology

Managing elections in a country of subcontinental dimensions cannot be done easily without the application of every possible technology. This has brought great efficiency in the electoral process. These technologies are rigorously field- tested before adoption to ensure absolute reliability. We have seen many elections in several countries collapsing because of hasty introduction of untested technology.

EVMs have been used in all elections since November 1998. They have revolutionized ballot counting, making it quick, peaceful, efficient and free from invalid votes. Counting day disputes and tensions have just disappeared. EVMs have come to be described as a wonder machine of Indian democracy. Many countries have chosen to adopt them, including Bhutan, Nepal and Namibia with many more studying the technology in depth.

EVMs have undergone frequent updates. The latest innovation is the addition of a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, which allows voters to verify that their vote was cast correctly and to provide a means to audit the stored electronic results. Now India has the most transparent and credible voting system in the world.

Four hallmarks characterize the way in which the ECI handles the mammoth task: independence, transparency, neutrality and professionalism to ensure full public trust in the Commission.

A distinctive new feature of the last general election was the significant role played by the new media, including mobile telephony and social media, in any election for the first time. Some went so far as to call social media the new election “battleground” and last year’s general elections the first social media election.

One of the secrets of the Election Commission’s success is its openness to new ideas and to learning from its mistakes and achievements. We, therefore, expect that every election is better than the previous best. EC’s efforts in pursuit of excellence must go on; not just India but the world has a great stake in the success of democracy in the region.

Realizing that aspiring democracies around the world look forward to sharing the knowledge, skills and expertise at ECI’s disposal, the Commission set up the India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management as a training and resource center in elections and democratic processes for both national and international participants.

In just three years of its existence, the institute has imparted training to election managers of over fifty African, Asian and Commonwealth countries, besides thousands of domestic master trainers. The institute has now become a training hub for assisting representative democracy worldwide.

A stage has come in India when holding a free and fair election is taken for granted. In fact, not holding one would be news. We must not let that happen. This is India’s promise to its own people and to the world.

S.Y. Quraishi is a former chief election commissioner of India. He also served as secretary at the Indian Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs and director general of national broadcaster Doordarshan.