Rising doubts over the fairness of voting in India are a bad sign for its democracy

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On Wednesday, the Supreme Court quashed the results of the January 30 mayoral polls for the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation. The presiding officer had named a Bharatiya Janata Party candidate as the winner in spite of the fact that the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party – which were in coalition for these polls – had the winning numbers.

How did the BJP win these elections despite not having the numbers? The presiding officer, Anil Masih, had tampered with eight ballots – all cast in favour of the AAP-Congress candidate, Kuldeep Dhalor – and then declared them invalid.

Remarkably, Masih’s tampering was caught on camera. In spite of this, the BJP was declared the winner with senior party leaders celebrating the verdict. Even more remarkable was the fact that despite this clear and publicly available evidence, the Punjab and Haryana high court declined to take any action when Dhalor approached it.

Free and fair?

It took a lighting hearing by the Supreme Court to stop such a blatant instance of rigging. “Allowing such a state of affairs to take place would be destructive of the most valued principles on which the entire edifice of democracy in our country depends,” the court held. “We are therefore of the view that the court must step in in such exceptional situations to ensure that the basic mandate of electoral democracy, albeit at the local participatory level is preserved.”

While the Supreme Court deserves praise for a rare intervention against the BJP, the entire episode raises some serious questions about the sanctity of the electoral process in India.

Voting in any democracy is always a contested activity and even in industrialised democracies, questions are constantly being raised about the fairness of the process. By itself, hectic debates around a process as critical as voting are good since they ensure that the authorities responsible for the process are under constant pressure.

What was troubling about the Chandigarh episode, however, was the brazenness of the act. Even as it was clear that the BJP had cheated with evidence available publicly, the party felt no pressure to back down. Normal checks and balances that apply in a democracy such as media pressure clearly failed. In fact, even the high court – a constitutional court – failed to do its role.

Election watch

For the past few years, a host of questions have been raised around the health of Indian democracy. However, most of them have centred around the nature of governance with rising concerns about majoritarianism, illiberalism and the lack of checks and balances on the executive. Questions around the actual beating heart of democracy – the process of voting – have not been raised to that extent. In fact, even experts who have described India’s democratic backsliding under Modi have used terms such as “elected autocracy”, which assumes that elections by themselves are free and fair.

But, as the Chandigarh incident shows, democratic watchdogs must place more emphasis on scrutinising even elections.

For one, serious doubts have been raised of late over the conduct of the Election Commission. Multiple polls have seen decisions that quite openly favour the ruling party at the Centre. In the 2021 West Bengal elections, for example, the Election Commission stuck to a protracted election schedule even in the face of a terrifying Covid surge. A shorter schedule, it was widely held, would have ended up helping the Trinamool Congress. Earlier in the 2019 elections, the commission ignored poll code violations by the prime minister. Later, an election commissioner, who disagreed with the decisions of his fellow election commissioners with regard to these violations, resigned.

This lack of accountability has even recently been enshrined in law. In 2023, the Modi government passed a new legislation that gave the Centre the power to appoint Election Commissioners. This overturned an ad hoc arrangement put in place by the Supreme Court which distributed the power to make appointments across the government, the Opposition and the judiciary.

Suppressing votes?

Experts have already pointed to serious lapses in the electoral process that have likely developed as a result of these weak checks and balances in the Indian democratic process. In 2023, Sabyasachi Das, assistant professor of economics at Ashoka University, published a paper applying multiple, rigorous statistical checks which pointed strongly towards electoral manipulation in BJP-ruled states and suppression of Muslim votes. (Read a previous India Fix detailing the arguments of the paper.)

In some ways, this is not even a secret: constituencies in Assam and Kashmir have been gerrymandered to undercut Muslim voters. A BJP chief minister openly claimed that this was meant to increase the voting weightage of the majority community.

Machine age

Perhaps most troubling are allegations raised by experts on the credibility of Electronic Voting Machines that the Election Commission uses to conduct elections. India is rare among major democracies for not using ballot paper to record votes.

Much of the Election Commission’s defence that EVMs cannot be tampered with rested on its claim that these machines were stand-alone and hence could not be hacked. However, in 2021, former Indian Administrative Service officer Kannan Gopinathan argued that this was not the case. Gopinathan has served as a returning officer, responsible for overseeing the voting in a constituency, for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He is also an electronics engineer and professional with a background in integrated circuits.

Unfortunately, rather than comprehensively answer these doubts, the Election Commission has chosen to not respond to Opposition parties.

Voting in India has never been perfect. Allegations of rigging and other forms of malfeasance have always been a part of the hurly-burly of Indian politics. However, till now, these were either limited to a few instances in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections or confined to local body elections. The idea that these infirmities could stretch across a national election is new and could end up doing great harm when it comes to popular trust in Indian democracy.

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