India goes to the polls for the thirteenth time to elect a new House of the People. Every election is a turning point in the history of a democratic nation. The coming elections - the third election in as many years - are invested with an even greater degree of significance; for, their outcome may well decide the future of coalition governments in the multi-party system of the Indian polity. The very fact that as a people, Indians renew their faith in the power of the vote through successive peaceful and fair polls, is testimony to their entrenched belief in the efficacy of the democratic system. This is the reason why, notwithstanding the huge expenditure involved in the exercise, which a poor and developing country like India can ill afford, elections are regarded not as a luxury but as an essential component of democracy.

    Viewed from any aspect, political, social or psephological, elections in India, whether at the national or state levels, have invariably been a fascinating story.Politically, these have contributed immensely to national cohesion and the growth of democratic temper. Socially, these have been a great equaliser, offering identical opportunities for exercising choice to the entire electorate - poor or rich, rural or urban, educated or illiterate, skilled or unskilled, male or female. Psephologically, their outcome has mirrored the complexities of the world’s largest democracy and helped to provide the most reliable insight into the voting behaviour of the population and the factors which influence its choice. Administratively, these have posed formidable challenges in sheer organisation and logistics which no other democracy in the world has to contend with. And, above all, news-wise, there is possibly no other single event relating to India which offers greater interest, excitement and thrill.

    Independent India is only 52 years old. But, among all the countries newly liberated from the colonial yoke, India alone has earned the singular distinction of not only being the world’s largest functioning, effective democracy but also of setting an example by conducting as many as twelve free and fair elections at the national, and more than 300, at the state level.

    Indeed, if one takes into account the numerous by-elections, it can be said that there is hardly a stretch of four to six months in a year during which an election is not being held in some part of the country or the other. Experience garnered at successive elections has honed the election machinery to such a state of refinement that the Election Commission of India claims to be ever ready to conduct a general election - a claim that came to be successfully tested when the Commission was called upon to conduct mid-term polls to the eleventh and the twelfth Lok Sabha at short notice, and is set once again to go through the exercise in less than 18 months after the last time.

    More importantly, elections have become a way of life and an exercise of faith for the Indian masses. Successive elections have both enhanced and deepened the people’s commitment to democracy. They have also made the Indian voter fully conscious of the value of his vote and the power of the ballot as the most potent instrument of change. Compared to the simple voter of 1952, when the first general elections were held, the voter of 1999, who will witness the thirteenth, is far more discerning, sophisticated, alert and politically aware. He knows his mind, and he is mindful of his own and the country’s interests.

    Each election has also exposed certain inherent weaknesses and inadequacies of the electoral system, thus helping to highlight the imperative of constant systematic reform and refinements through amendments to the People’s Representation Act enacted by Parliament in 1951.

    Indian elections are unique in some respects. Some of its unusual features spring from, and reflect the vastness of the country, its seasonal diversities, its geographical complexities and the variations in regional environments. It is not surprising, therefore, that factors such as summer and winter and monsoon, or floods and drought often influence the timing for the conduct of elections. There were occasions in the last five decades when elections were deliberately avoided, or held, on the basis of these factors. However, thanks to the experience of so many elections, their influence is progressively diminishing. It would have been odd, even a couple of decades ago, for elections to be held in the month of May, when the Indian sun is particularly oppressive.

    But this happened during the eleventh round of Parliamentary elections. The latest round being held when the monsoon is still active in parts of the country. Maintaining the recent trend of phasing the polls to ensure greater security, the latest round is being held in five phases. Polling this time is spread over a whole month - from September 5 to October 3.

Democratisation of polity

    The democratisation of the polity through regular elections was high on the agenda of the Constituent Assembly set up immediately after India’s Independence in 1947. Given the fact that India had meagre experience of elections during the British rule, given the fact also that a majority of its populace was illiterate and probably could not fathom the intricacies of voting, the question arose as to whether the electoral system should be based on adult franchise or on proportional representation as was in vogue in some of the countries whose constitutions were being avidly studied by the Founding Fathers. Adult franchise would overnight boost the strength of a manageable electorate of 35 million to a formidable and perhaps unmanageable 170 to 180 million. Eventually, the Constituent Assembly plumped for adult franchise as an act of faith. Experience has vindicated that faith. The size of the electorate too has risen steadily over the decades. From a massive 173 million in 1952, it now stands at a mind-boggling 620 million.

    A remarkable feature of Indian elections is the participation of women. Thanks to the ethos developed during the freedom movement, in which women from all corners of India played a historic part equalling men in courage, sacrifice and spirit, there would have been no question whatsoever of denying women their democratic rights in a free India. The Suffrage Movement, aided by the work of women in the First World War gained British women the right to vote only in 1918. In the United States, women were given the vote by the 19th Amendment in 1920, and women were specifically protected from discrimination in the Civil Rights Act only as recently as in 1964. There are still nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America where women are yet to be emancipated enough to enable them to vote. The Indian woman has been more fortunate.

    This apart, the zeal for voting among women has been as strong as among men, and in a large number of constituencies, even stronger, judging from the turn-out. Women voter turn-out increased from 38.8 per cent in the fifties to nearly 60 per cent in the nineties, whereas the increase in the turn-out of men in the same period was only four per cent.

    It is not only in the participation in the voting process that the commitment of India’s women to democracy is reflected, but also in the mounting enthusiasm and interest among women to secure representation in the country’s legislatures. Partly, this rising fervour is due to the benefits of education reaching the interior areas of rural India. Partly, it is due to the strengthened sense of self-confidence among women in their capacity to contribute at par with men to nation-building. The 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, which reserve 33 per cent of elective seats in Panchayati Raj and Municipal bodies to women, not only brought thousands of women into the democratic process but has also provided a major boost to their self-confidence.

    In the 1984 general elections, for instance, as many as 128 seats in 23 states of India were contested by 173 women, of whom 43 got elected to the Lok Sabha (House of the People). The number of women contestants has progressively risen election after election. The figure which remained under 50 in the first two general elections rose to 65 in the third, and to 599 in the eleventh. The number of women in the outgoing Lok Sabha was 43. Legislation to ensure 33 per cent representation for women in Parliament and legislatures figured on the agenda of the eleventh and twelfth Lok Sabhas but the measure could not be passed. Most of the political parties have committed themselves in their respective manifestos to enact the legislation in the 13th Lok Sabha.

    While this is no doubt gratifying, the number of women contestants has unfortunately not corresponded to the large female population in India and there surely is the need and scope for a larger number to enter the fray. At the same time, it is sad but true that most political parties have not shown the necessary fair-mindedness in giving adequate number of "tickets" to women candidates, though all of them subscribe to the healthy principle of reserving 33 per cent of seats in all democratic institutions for women. While a large number of men have chosen to contest polls as "independents" (unattached to any political party), there have been very few cases where women have shown similar enterprise.

    This is possibly because they feel that they would need considerable infrastructural and organisational backing which only a political party can provide. Interestingly, of the 43 women who were elected to the twelfth Lok Sabha, as many as 20 were returned from the relatively backward states of Uttar Pradesh (9),Bihar (4), Madhya Pradesh (4) and Rajasthan (3), whereas the more urbanised and developed states like Maharashtra in the west and all the four states in the south made only a token contribution of one or two each.

Teenage Voters

    Till the parliamentary poll of 1989, which elected the ninth Lok Sabha, the minimum statutory age for casting vote was 21. The minimum statutory age for contesting a seat both at the national and state levels was fixed long ago at 25. Partly because of the increasing participation of students and youth in the elections, either as supporters of political parties or leaders or candidates, and partly because of the manifestation of keen political interest in their own movements in collages and universities, the feeling grew over the years that it was unfair to deny the right to vote to those falling in the 18-21 age group. The demand for enfranchising them was articulated not only by the large body of students all over the country, but also by all political parties. Parliament, through a constitutional amendment in 1989 reduced the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. For the first time, as many as 35.7 million voters in this age group exercised their right to elect representatives in the 1989 elections. Their inclusion in the electoral list raised the strength of the total electorate by 7.71 per cent.

    There is, however, no way of assessing whether the induction of the 18-21 age group into the democratic process has significantly or marginally influenced the fates and fortunes of the contestants. One assessment, of course, is that the youth everywhere is basically anti-establishment and is apt to favour parties representing the extremes of the political spectrum. In a secret ballot, it is not possible to ascertain the voting behaviour of particular age or sex groups, although patterns and trends are discernible either region-wise or constituency-wise.

Representation to weaker sections

    From the very beginning, a constitutional provision has existed in India for allocation of seats proportionate to their population (as determined by successive census) to some specific weaker sections of society, namely, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. While it is possible for a SC or ST candidate to contest from a "general" seat, only candidates representing those sections can contest from the reserved constituencies.

    Of the total 543 elective seats in the House of the People, 423 are in the "general" category, while 79 seats are reserved for the Scheduled Castes and 41 for the Scheduled Tribes. The Constitution also provides that the President may nominate not more than two members of the Anglo-Indian community (a minority community) if this community is not adequately represented in the Lok Sabha. However, by convention, two Anglo-Indian members are nominated to the House after every election. Constitutional provision for the weaker sections and for the Anglo-Indian minority is yet another unique feature of Indian elections.

    Indian elections follow a balloting system based on symbols. Given the large extent of illiteracy, the resort to symbols became an electoral necessity, but, the world over, symbols are being used to aid easy identification. Each national party has a symbol reserved exclusively for its candidates throughout India, while state parties have a symbol for exclusive use of its candidates in the respective states. All other candidates have to choose one symbol from a list of "free" symbols. The Election Commission has banned the use of animal symbols following protests from animal lovers but has expanded the list of free symbols by including a large number of inanimate objects of daily use.

    The first two General Elections followed a system of balloting in which there were as many ballot boxes as there were candidates. However in the State Elections since the late fifties and since the third General Election of 1962, a marking system on the ballot paper was introduced. The voter uses "x" mark against the name of the candidate of his choice. After this, one box is used into which all votes are dropped. The practice of using indelible ink on the voter’s finger was introduced as a precautionary step to prevent impersonation since the first General Election of 1952. According to an estimate, 18,00,000 ounces of the ink are used in a general election.

    The utility of the more sophisticated electronic voting machine (EVM)has been realised in India for sometime. After an initial trial use in the eighties, these instruments were not brought into wider use on account of resistance from major political parties. The voting machines, which retain all the characteristics of voting by ballot papers even as they make the polling process a lot more easier, are expected to replace the ballot papers in a phased manner after both the polling personnel and voters are adequately trained and get used to the device.

    While these machines were used in 16 select constituencies during the November 1998 state assembly polls in four states, Goa became the first state where the EVMs were used to conduct the entire polling in the latest assembly elections in June 1999. Encouraged by the response, the Election Commission, which invested several million rupees to procure the EVMs, each costing approximately Rs. 50,000/- (US $ 1,500), decided to deploy them in 46 Parliamentary constituencies in the 1999 general elections. These constituencies together have 64,611 polling stations.

    Like many Commonwealth countries, India follows the First-Past-The-Post electoral system (simple majority) in which the candidate securing the largest number of votes is the winner. Needless to say, the system has its advantages and disadvantages. There are also strong supporters in India of the system of proportional representation. However, with all the aberrations inherent in the system, it seems to have stood the test of time.

Proliferation of Political Parties

    Splits and/or mergers have become endemic in political parties in India. This phenomenon has been more noticeable in the last   two decades, and it has led to the proliferation of parties "registered" and "recognised" by the Election Commission. The more the splits, the larger the number of parties in the fray. However, the Fifty-second Constitution Amendment Act, 1985, seeks to check defections by disqualifying members of Parliament if they defect under certain conditions.

    An indirect fall-out of the phenomenon of splits and mergers and re-splits has been the erosion of efforts towards the evolution of a two-party system in India. On the eve of the thirteenth general election, there are 712 political parties in the country. Seven of these are National parties and 49 are State parties, the remaining 656 are Registered Unrecogised parties. While it is a far cry from a two-party system, the forthcoming general election is set to witness a contest between two broad fronts - one led by the Congress and the other led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

    The proliferation of regional parties, which has impinged itself on the electoral scene, is another interesting aspect of Indian politics. Some of these parties were born as a direct challenge to the central government and the then party in power: some were born to articulate regional aspirations and assert the demand for greater provincial autonomy. Influence of these parties was once confined to the regions, but they are impacting on the national scene of late, since one or more of them is aligned with some national party or the other and thus an aspirant for a share in power at the Centre. In forging coalition arrangements, they have a meaningful role to play since they constitute the balancing factor.

    Statistics concerning Indian elections can be truly mind-boggling. Consider first the size of the electorate, which will be approximately 620 million in the 1999 poll. Beginning with a modest (modest in the context of Indian population) 173.20 million in 1952, it peaked to nearly 500 million in 1989 and to more than 600 million in the last election for the millennium. The number of candidates also increased correspondingly in successive elections, touching an all time high of 13,952 in the eleventh general election. This average of nearly 26 candidates per constituency created innumerable problems to the Election Commission in preparing the ballot papers and more so in finding free symbols for all these candidates. The large number of candidates per constituency was on account of the entry of a large number of "independents" trying their luck, almost always unsuccessfully, at the husting.

    In 1989, for instance, Bhiwani constituency in Haryana state recorded the largest number of candidates (122). For the 1996 general election, Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh crossed all earlier records with 480 candidates in the fray. Belgaum in neighbouring Karnataka was a close second in this regard, with a total of 456 candidates vying for the seat. Contests for assembly polls are even more competitive.

    There were an unbelievable 1033 candidates contesting the Modakurachi Assembly seat in Tamil Nadu where elections to the state legislature were held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls. The Commission checked this trend before the last election in 1998 by increasing the security deposit amounts for all candidates. The number of polling stations to be set up is between 7,50,000 to 8,00,000, while not less than 500,000 polling personnel, other staff and a very large number of security staff have to be employed to conduct the polls. Indeed, one of the reasons why Indian parliamentary elections are spread over so many phases is because the security staff have to be deployed at all polling stations and moving them from area to area takes time.

    The Election Commission ensures that no area or constituency is denied the opportunity of voting, whether it is isolated by snow or by floods. Howsoever remote and normally inaccessible the constituency or segments within it be, a polling station is always set up. Thus, in order to enable two, yes, just two voters to exercise their franchise in a snow-bound village in the upper reaches of Kashmir, the Commission has been setting up a polling booth election after election, its staff having to trek several kilometres of difficult mountainous terrain to do so.

    The figures cited above give only a feeble insight into the gigantic operation that an election in India is. Where human beings interact with one another, where candidates struggle hard for electoral support from the masses, where voters are determined to make free choices, and where caste and communal factors still play a sinister role in electioneering, a certain amount of friction is only to be expected. Even so, India has reason to be gratified that by and large elections have been extraordinarily peaceful, orderly and business like. No doubt, there have been instances where use of money power and muscle power has resulted in unpleasant situations and violence has erupted. Overzealous but misguided anti-social elements have either intimidated voters or captured booths or whisked away ballot boxes and polling personnel. But these have been largely localised instances, and are only exceptions to the rule. Complaints of electoral malpractice are the concomitants of elections everywhere in the world, but considering the small number of election petitions in courts or the sporadic cases of re-polls or countermanding, there is an element of fairness in Indian elections which has not been challenged so far. It is interesting also that electoral malpractices have been regular only in some specific states where local antagonisms and caste-based political rivalries are the normal features.

    The other parts of the country are fortunately free of such vitiation in the atmosphere. Relative to the number of polling booths all over the country, incidents of booth capturing and voter intimidation and impersonation have been insignificant. Observers from the world over, who have witnessed Indian elections, have not only been impressed by the popular zeal reflected in the heavy turn-out but also by the high standards of impartiality and fair play on the part of the election staff. The entire poll process takes place under the constant glare of media—national and international. It is an open system in every sense of the term.  India goes to the polls for the thirteenth time to elect a new House of the People. Every election is a turning point in a democratic nation’s history.

    The current election is invested with an even greater degree of significance. Its outcome may well decide the future patterns of governance and multi-party functioning in the Indian polity, given the fact that no single party could muster a simple majority in the Lok Sabha on its own since 1989. There has only been one government of a single party in the last ten years, and this too was a minority government to begin with. Shri.P.V.Narasimha Rao, who headed this government in the tenth Lok Sabha acquired the majority-status on account of splits in certain opposition parties with one of the breakaway factions joining the ruling party. While the eleventh Lok Sabha witnessed three coalition governments, none of which lasted even an year, the twelfth Lok Sabha, which had a life of 13 months, was also headed by a coalition government.

    Even though the Congress has tried to project itself as the party poised to gain majority in the House on its own strength, the general perception is that the election will, once again, throw up a hung Parliament, which in turn would again necessitate a multi-party coalition government. The BJP, which led a coalition formation in the last Lok Sabha, is leading a 24-party front called the NDA, and the Congress, despite its assertions of coming to power on its own, has forged electoral understandings with as many as 22 regional parties.

    The very fact that as a people, Indians renew their faith in the power of the vote through successive peaceful and fair polls is a testimony to their entrenched belief in the efficacy of the parliamentary system. This is the reason why notwithstanding the huge expenditure involved in the exercise, an expenditure which a poor and developing country like India can ill afford, elections are regarded not a luxury but an essential component of democracy.