Bookending the Indian Ballot
In the middle of the ongoing political pandemonium, as India elects its 16th Lok Sabha members amidst brouhaha and balderdash, very few books have managed to draw attention to themselves. Some for their controversial content related to the UPA regime, others for highlighting contentious aspects of the face of political opposition. Finally, now comes a book that offers knowledge and not merely gossip garbed as insight. Former chief election commissioner (CEC) SY Quraishi’s An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election is what I have in mind.
Incisively written, Quraishi’s book lays bare the entire process of elections in India – how a new government is picked from the scratch. Enriching, insightful, informative and lucidly written, Quraishi’s book is a sheer treat to read. Interestingly, from the very beginning, the former CEC makes relevant comparisons of similar contemporary bodies as the Election Commission of India (ECI) set up in other countries across the world. How their models function as per the countries’ needs vis-à-vis the Indian system is a delight to go through.
This book, written in a simple yet readable style, has packed in so much information that it can be an ideal guide for election managers worldwide. The role and significance of the ECI is aptly defined by him in the second chapter of the book – ‘Empowering the Election Commission’ – as this body ‘in a federal state empowers citizens to participate actively in the democratic process, as well as promotes transparency and accountability in politics.’ The ECI, in a way, is the ‘watchdog of democracy,’ he says.
This book unravels the successful and peaceful executions of parliamentary and assembly elections by ECI across India. From detailing the achievements of our first chief election commissioner – Sukumar Sen (appointed on 21 March 1950), to the fact that ‘the commission became a three-member body with the addition of two election commissioners’ on 1 October 1993 and finally to understanding the dynamics, working and setup of the ECI, Quraishi does a fabulous job. Recounting ‘hallmarks of credible elections,’ Quraishi talks about independence, transparency, neutrality and professionalism. One of the major hurdles for the ECI is reaching the ‘last voter.’ Quraishi talks of the wide spectrum of voters (including women, differently-abled and transgenders) on getting registration done and then finally making the voter actually cast his/her ballot. There is an entire chapter detailing the ECI’s efforts in engaging the youth to vote.
One key aspect of the elections which the former bureaucrat highlights is the importance of adopting new technology in conducting ‘free and fair’ elections in the country. ‘One of the biggest technological innovations to be used in the election process in India came in the early 1980s in the form of EVMs (electronic voting machines)’, he recounts. After this followed a wave of technological development enhancing the procedure – from introduction of computerisation of electoral rolls to usage of mobile technology and the internet.
Citing examples, anecdotes and newspaper pieces, Quraishi gives a cohesive account of the electoral process in the country. One of the crucial segments that he dwells on is one the Model Code of Conduct, which tells us exactly what it regulates and how it is done. Following this comes the significant issue of corruption during polls and how ECI manages to conduct free and fair elections, keeping in check money and muscle power. The role of media during this time is also tackled well by the author. Finally, the book culminates with the chapter ‘Reflections and Afterthoughts’, which ruminates matter-of-factly on the state of affairs in the country which has a ‘multi-party parliamentary democracy.’
While reading the book, you are gripped by the narrative technique used by Quraishi, who keeps the reader hooked with interesting anecdotes intermixed with factual treasure troves. It is a concoction of information and ideas, dished out for the reader to know it all about the existing structure and historical significance of the ECI.
The book was an enthralling experience. Pick it up!