The Land Where No One Dies

Ramesh Ramanathan's latest in Mint (no link):
Elections and Voters’ Lists – the DNA of our Democracy

“It seems that nobody dies in Karnataka”, said N. Gopalaswami, Chief Election Commissioner of India. He had just completed a review of the electoral rolls – more commonly known as the voters’ list – in the state. There were an astonishing number of errors, leading the Election Commission (EC) to declare that they would be deleting over 34 lakh entries, and adding close to 10 lakh entries over the coming weeks, in an operation that looks more like a disaster relief activity than a maintenance job on a database – 30,000 government servants deployed at every polling booth, twelve senior level officers at the state level, and four observers from other states.

That’s a huge number. It’s a wake-up call to recognise that this isn’t about bureacratic neglect or administrative incompetence, it’s a fundamental long-running legacy problem. If we don’t address this the right way, we run the risk of putting band-aids when the patient has a deep disease. The disaster relief has to give way to systemic change.

In the short run, the EC’s public announcement has added another dimension to an already twisted political situation in the state. Karnataka is being run under President’s rule, after the tattered coalition government of the JDS-BJP collapsed under the weight of its own bickerings. Right now, all political parties are working furiously to estimate their share of the vote in a possible May election, which might even get postponed. Every caste and community configuration is being parsed – split into sub-castes and further subdivided so that electoral victory can be squeezed out.

This is acceptable electoral politics in India. But the troubling part is the role that weak voter rolls will play in determining political fortunes. Because elections these days hinge on small slivers of margins, which make the difference between fading into oblivion and being victorious.

In the last Karnataka elections, 170 of the 224 candidates – over 75% - won without getting a clear majority of the votes. 116 seats were won with a margin of victory of less than 10,000 votes, and 70 with less than 5,000 votes. If half these votes – less than 2,500 – had swung the other way, the results would have been different. Suddenly, the 35 lakh false entries assumes importance – an average of 15,000 names wrong in each constituency.

All political parties know these errors. There is a flourishing market for these fake names. Its easier to “buy” a fake voter than a real voter, whose loyalty is unpredictable, price is market-driven, and presence at the polling booth on election day is uncertain.

Unfortunately, little can be done to solve this problem, certainly not in the next few months. Contrary to public imagination, the Election Commission of India is a tiny organisation with a small handful of senior Commissioners and support staff. They depend heavily on state and local government machinery to manage their work. This army of grassroot soldiers is a motley group of teachers and revenue officers who double up for this unsavoury job. Ramaseshan, the Chief Electoral Officer of Karnataka said, “There is a human dimension here that we overlook. Women teachers often have to visit voters’ houses late at night, after work hours when they are sure that people will be at home.” And the ripple effects in the major clean-up operation in Karnataka are massive: close to 10,000 teachers are double-timing during exam days, busy toiling away knocking on people’s doors, getting turned away like unwanted salespeople. The instructions are for teachers to do this after school hours, with no additional income. Boy, the price that democracy extracts!

The lessons go beyond Karnataka. The Election Commission is a credible Constitutional authority, and it needs support. It needs financial and human resources to undertake fundamental business process re-engineering in every aspect of electoral roll management: change the entire database of the voters list from a patchwork of excel sheets that resides only with vendors to a secure, single location; revamp roll management to a continuous process rather than a stop-and-start activity; create transparency and opportunities for citizens to engage at a neighbourhood level; use GIS to map polling station boundaries; pay for booth-level officers from the government and post-office machinery; and beef up the technical and administrative support for the EC. All this will cost no more than Rs 1,000 crore a year nationally. It’s peanuts compared to the hundreds of thousands of crores of public resources that corrupt politicians gain access to with the seal of legitimacy that elections confer upon them, dead voters included.
I'm not entirely sure it is just a legacy issue. One of the poor teachers turned up at my house two weeks ago. Sure my name was on the list. But so were the names of three people who I absolutely do not know. How could they be registered to vote from my house? I have never rented out the house ever, the house is just five years old, it was an empty site before that. Who put their names in? And the names were very plausible local names. It must've been deliberately done.

Of course, the larger issue of how the voter list is maintained is a huge problem too. The teachers who this have to be pitied. The poor lady who was 50+ had come once before and since no one was at home, she had come again. And it was pure coincidence that she caught me. All this on foot, and on top of other duties. That's not right at all.

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