Recently, the Madras and Calcutta high courts came down heavily on the EC for conducting elections in several states where Covid-appropriate behaviour was being flagrantly violated, amidst a raging second wave of the pandemic. Last year, during the first wave, EC had come out with ‘Broad Guidelines for conduct of elections during Covid-19’ after consultations with national and regional political parties. However, a close look at EC guidelines would indicate it only tapers down the strength of mass gatherings, while still retaining the basic structure of a physical election campaigning. Many of us would know it’s impossible to comply with or effectively monitor these restrictions in the field.
There are several ways in which the current situation should influence for better democratic processes in the future. Firstly, the lockdown opened up several possibilities for reaching out to people through online and social media, web-based broadcasts, webcasts and webinars. It’s believed that from less than 10% voters in 2014 to more than 30% voters in 2019 were influenced by social media, with more than 10 times increased spending on digital campaigns. In August 2020, two events stood out as disruptive and transformative. Party workers and leaders sent messages through their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts in Congress’s SpeakUp campaign. And BJP started its Jan Samvad virtual rallies in every state in which nearly 5 lakh party workers would listen to their leader’s speeches on YouTube, Facebook Live and the Namo app. These online rallies to reach out to booth level from a central place wouldn’t have been possible in physical form. We can well imagine the drastic reduction in campaigning costs such online events would bring to the candidates.
Secondly, it’s high time the voting process itself underwent a change with use of technology for e-voting, as going to a booth to press the same button in an EVM machine isn’t medically advisable in a pandemic situation. Moreover, arrangements to organise elections with no health ramifications would require EC or governments to hire almost 30-40 lakh medical staff, purchase disinfection items and provide medical supplies to ensure safety at more than 10 lakh booths. Besides, polling invites involvement of security forces whose stay, movement and deployment costs are huge. Questions are raised about security of an e-voting system. But when financial data of crores of Indians can be securely kept within the banking system through use of robust technology, similar possibility may well-nigh exist for e-voting by using Aadhaar-linked, individual-voter-specific, non-transferable link and exercising voting preferences either from home or from Jan Seva Kendras (mainly for rural voters).
If this happens, one can imagine the savings that can happen in the system. Estonia has nearly perfected the e-polling system with almost 47% of the country voting online in last year’s parliamentary election. The Estonian i-voting system is highly transparent and digitally secure. It preserves voter’s anonymity while ensuring the right to vote with paper ballot parallel to digital voting. It’s worth emulation. Thirdly, the very basis of physical meeting of MPs and MLAs in a large space in the Parliament or legislatures should undergo a change. Elected representatives could meet virtually. Imagine the savings as there would be no travelling expenses, marshals, staff who take physical short-hands, canteens etc. Similarly, committee meetings could also be held virtually without bothering about the confidentiality of the proceedings which can be ensured by adoption of appropriate security and firewalls.
According to a study, Indian election spending is $8 per vote which is triple of what 60% of Indians survive on on any given day. We need to optimise both the cost of a vote and the cost of lives.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
END OF ARTICLE