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 elections[1]. 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 Laws[2] as laid out in the Indian Constitution and the Representation of the People Act, 1951[3] 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 India[4] 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 Court[6], 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.

 

[1] ‘Analysis of funds collected and expenditure incurred by national political parties – Lok Sabha 2004, 2009 & 2014’, Association for Democratic Reforms (http://adrindia.org/research-and-report/political-party-watch/combined-reports/2015/analysis-funds-collected-and)
[2] ‘Election Laws’, Election Commission of India (http://eci.nic.in/eci_main1/electoral_law.aspx)
[3] ‘The Representation of the People Act, 1951’, Ministry of Law and Justice (http://lawmin.nic.in/legislative/election/volume%201/representation%20of%20the%20people%20act,%201951.pdf)
[4] ‘Census of India – 2011’ (http://censusindia.gov.in/)
[5] Writ petition filed by ADR on election expenditure of political parties (http://adrindia.org/sites/default/files/ADR_Writ_Election_Expenditure.pdf)
[6] Writ petition filed by ADR on bringing political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act (http://adrindia.org/sites/default/files/PIL%20filed%20by%20ADR%20in%20the%20Supreme%20Court%20to%20bring%20Political%20Parites%20Under%20RTI.pdf)
Lakshmi Sriram
Lakshmi is a Bio-medical Engineer with a Master’s degree in Medical Imaging from the University of Aberdeen, UK. She has worked as a research assistant in the UK for a year and at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad for a year before volunteering for ADR in 2009.
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