Digitization and Democracy
Digitization and Democracy
Election campaigns have become an exercise in glitzy marketing with political leaders marketed as messiahs of
development or good governance. Election rallies are akin to rock concerts, with a lot of effort and money spent
for crowd mobilization. Expensive marketing strategists are employed to coin glib acronyms and roll out slick PR
events such as Chai pe Charcha and Har Ghar Dastak. It is not surprising then that contesting elections has become
more expensive in real terms. In the 2014 general elections, political parties spent Rs 1308 crores, a whopping 386%
increase from the 2004 Lok Sabha elections1
. Unofficial expenditure in cash would probably be far higher.
In addition, the Union government spent approximately Rs 3,500 crores on the conduct of 2014 general elections,
while an equal amount for other measures to ensure free and fair elections was borne by the Indian Railways, state
government and various government agencies.
Such rampant monetization of the Indian election cycle, the need for financial muscle in an increasingly cluttered
electoral market place, the overwhelming compulsion to bombard the voter with dazzling imagery has ominous
consequences. Much of the demand for big ticket corruption, of venal politicians colluding with businessmen to
misappropriate state resources – spectrum, coal blocks, land – stems from the need for politicians and parties to
initially fund and subsequently recoup their electoral expenditure. This is the scenario not only during Lok Sabha
and Assembly/ Legislative Council elections but also Municipal Corporation elections, Bye-elections, Student body
elections, Panchayat (Zila, Block and Gram Pradhan) elections. In India, virtually round the year, elections are being
held in some part of the country or the other where the entire machinery, consisting of the Election Commission,
political parties, bureaucracy and the public, is involved. Holding elections simultaneously can reduce election
expenditure considerably, but would require constitutional amendments.
If the financial burden on the politician in marketing his/her ideology and vision is reduced, our Indian democracy
could be saved from becoming a rupee-dependent democracy. Could digitization of the polling process help? To a
certain extent. Voting digitally would obviate the need for elections spread over multiple phases, as voters can
exercise their franchise at any specified time from any place of their convenience. The very compression of a lengthy
polling process will substantially reduce electoral expenditure on the part of parties, with salutary consequences
for India’s political economy.
The benefits of digital voting can be more tangible and immediate. A large fraction of the Indian migratory voter
population comprises of migrant labourers/ white collar workers/ students who are registered voters in their
constituencies in their home states but are unable to go home to cast their votes. This effectively disenfranchises a
substantial portion of the Indian electorate. Digital polling could provide the migratory population an opportunity
to vote. It also has the advantage of reducing malpractices such as booth capturing or accusations of EVM
tampering, intimidation or even preventing voters from exercising their Constitutional right to vote.
Digitization of the voting process would also lead to reduced paper trail, lesser man power for manning booths and
no long queues in the heat of Tamil Nadu, humidity of Mumbai or the bone chilling cold of Leh! Assuming the reach
and reliability of the network is beyond reproach, the benefits of immediate voter verification and the confirmation
of vote cast are big advantages. The government would also be saving a significant amount of money because of
the reduction in requirement of security on polling day(s) and result days(s).
The Indian state is putting together the infrastructure for digital and financial inclusion. The rapid penetration of
wireless devices now hold out the promise of digital and financial inclusion for hundreds of millions of Indians,
whether rural or urban.
Technologically, we might not be there yet, completely. Physical verification of identity might still be required apart
from imparting training to the voters. In a decade perhaps, our wireless devices will be equipped with the features
and the technology commonplace, to validate identity as well. This would require additional infrastructural benefits
equally to the urban and rural populations, that would ensure the digital elections are held in the same free and
fair manner as has been conducted by the Election Commission of India since 1951- 52. The money and muscle
power, which are the bane of today’s election process, should not be carried forward to the digital election process
too, posing as contractors to private and public companies hired to make the digital polling, a reality. The current
system of ballots has the advantage of being legally sound due to the Election Laws2
as laid out in the Indian
Constitution and the Representation of the People Act, 19513 which was enacted by the Parliament to specify all
rules governing elections to the Rajya Sabha, Lok Sabha and the state Assemblies. In order for the digital polling to
be as effective as secret ballot voting, such comprehensive legal backing is mandatory.
When digital polling becomes a reality, the urban population which forms only 31% of the total population of India4
would be in a better position to understand and follow the instructions while 69% of the rural population might
feel left behind. The growing migration towards urban areas might skew the share of rural population being left
behind. Despite the required extensive training to the rural population, the success of digital voting depends on
their gradual trust in the new voting mechanism, which only time can provide.
Politically, such a measure cannot be possible without all political parties agreeing to it. Due to the multi-party
politics of India where coalition governments are formed due to their inherent need to stay in power and not for
their ideological similarities, the leaders might only look out for their political interests. There is an inherent and at
times collusive bond between political parties and the corporates. This very caricaturization of electoral democracy
has gone hand in hand with the rise of crony capitalism. With the aid of legislations to improve transparency and
accountability in the functioning of political parties, there can be a marked change in not only how elections are
held but also how the country is governed. One such example is the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by
Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR)5
requesting for an election expenditure limit to be set on political parties
apart from frequent and regular submission of their expenditure statements, for public scrutiny. If all political
parties come under the ambit of the RTI Act, as requested by ADR in its PIL to the Supreme Court6, transparency in
their functioning will be the norm.
While studies can be made comparing the scenarios in other democracies, the Indian electoral system is unique in
its own way because of the diversity in terrains, language and societal issues. Thus, in order to understand the true
effect of digital polling, a pilot study could be conducted, after plugging all the loopholes in the current election
laws, ushering in the much needed transparency and accountability in the functioning of political parties. It is said
that digital inclusion, through the promise of direct cash transfers and financial inclusion, can upend the economics
of poverty. And it seems, the economics of politics too.
- Lakshmi Sriram
3 ‘The Representation of the People Act, 1951’, Ministry of Law and Justice
4 ‘Census of India – 2011’
5 Writ petition filed by ADR on election expenditure of political parties
6 Writ petition filed by ADR on bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act