I earned the right to vote for the 1962 general elections. But I could not. I was working at Madras Christian College and was assigned election work at a polling booth in Thiruvanmiyur. Five of us, a lady doctor who was the chief, assisted by three officials from the government and myself, were given instructions and training. We had to report on the day previous to polling.
Manual voting and steel ballot boxes...
Those were the days of manual voting and steel ballot boxes. In most places, with few contestants, there were direct contests. There was little violence, impersonation, booth capturing or other manipulations, freebies, cash-for-votes... The main contest was between the Congress and the DMK that was emerging at that time as a political force. There were street corner meetings by political leaders, K Kamaraj, M Bhaktavatsalam, C Subramaniam, TTK and R Venkataraman, and the local candidates, countered by C N Annadurai, V R Nedunchezhiyan, M Karunanidhi and others from the DMK. We also had great orators like P Jeevanandham (Communist) and M P Sivagnanam (Tamil Arasu Kazhagam). A contestant visited selected spots of the constituency where he would meet the local voters. There were also a few cars with loudspeakers moving around.
Voter turnout was modest; in most booths it was less than 50 per cent. I remember, voting to be quite orderly. At the close of polling, the officials would go through the formalities of filling the forms, securing the ballot boxes and getting ready for packing up. The chief polling officer, the lady, handed the charge to me and left along with the other three late evening. I waited for the arrival of the truck with security staff. These turned up in the wee hours of the next day. I supervised the loading of the ballot boxes, travelled along with the boxes and my bicycle to the central counting centre, handed these under signature and left for home to catch up some sleep in the early hours of the next day.
I look back on the evolution of the conduct of election and the role played by technology.
The most significant technology change relates to the introduction of the electronic voting machine (EVM). Bharat Electronics, with its team of brilliant engineers that included the famous Tamil writer Sujatha (S Rangarajan), designed and perfected the machine. Of course, it was not an easy task: people resisted change, bitterly attacking the automation for decades. I also remember the passionate defence of the system by the reputed educationist Dr P V Indiresan (PVI), who headed the IIT-M with distinction. PVI was also actively involved in a vast range of scientific and economic issues. He breathed his last while defending the EVM at a meeting in Pune.
What a Hanuman jump the EVM brought about! The earlier manual counting of votes had dozens of polling agents of the contestants keenly overseeing the votes cast. What havoc manual counting could do was best illustrated by the most prosperous USA. In the 2000 Presidential elections,
after George Bush was declared elected President, his opponent Al Gore was found to have secured more votes!
For handling the issue of much large number of voters (last Lok Sabha election involved around 90 crore) the EVMs were accepted as efficient and tamper proof.
Look at the issue involved in Tamil Nadu that had around 5.79 crore eligible voters. With high turnaround of 80 per cent, this works out to 4.6 crore votes cast. The TN election was conducted with over 65,000 booths, over 150,000 security personnel, hundreds of observers and polling officials at the rate of five per booth appointed by the Election Commission (EC).
Took bold to exercise the vast powers of Election Commissioner
Post-1990, when T N Seshan took charge as the Chief Election Commissioner, conduct of elections took a new shape. Seshan took bold to exercise the vast powers of EC and ensured free and fair conduct of elections. He instilled the sense of fear by boldly punishing the erring politicians and officials, countermanding polls. The notorious practice of booth capturing and manipulation freely indulged in Bihar and elsewhere ended. Successive election commissioners have been maintaining the intensity of vigilance, concern and acumen and ensure free and fair practices.
Kudos to Election Commission...
Chief election officers at the state level had also been imbibed with such flair for fair conduct of elections. In Tamil Nadu, this task was entrusted to a brilliant IAS officer, Rajesh Lakhoni. He has earned a reputation for efficiency in his several postings. Prior to his shift to EC, he held two powerful portfolios as Principal Secretary in the areas of energy and agriculture. He contributed to the state’s transformation from severe shortage to comfortable surplus in power availability.
Two aspects of his administration of this tough portfolio deserves special mention: the first relates to his efforts to tackle the widely frivalent practice in Tamil Nadu of liberal distribution of cash for votes. With strict action, coordinating with the IT department and taking liberal recourse to technology, the Commission succeeded in seizing over Rs 100 crore of money purportedly sought to be used for this pernicious practice. For one from Chhattisgarh, he has been effectively and fluently communicating in Tamil. He galvanised his team into action coordinating well with the police, para-military forces, administrative staff, observers and ensured fair conduct of election and on several TV interviews and media interactions he focused on high turnout. He repeated the target for 100 per cent voter turnout and fervently appealed to voters on this.
The bitter antagonism and animosities among political parties in Tamil Nadu are in line with the ambitions of several political leaders to occupy the chief minister’s chair. Campaigns by political leaders have been bitter, provocative with below-the-belt hits. The EC couldn’t quite effectively prevent the ingenuous manner of distributing cash for votes. In this election with a five cornered contest, the heat generated was much, much more than in earlier elections. There were several non-serious parties and contestants with little stake and they indulged in accusations, charges and promises with little concern for delivery.
This time two other features were dominant: increased use of technology and the impact of the media. The massive expansion of the electronic media, notably the internet, resulted in lively caricatures, innuendos, barbs and bites. Our politicians provided ample opportunities for lampooning through their antics. Facebook revelled in caricaturing Vijayakant who was never found wanting to provide for such mirth. Dinamalar in its daily election section (§¾÷¾ø ¸Çõ), presented rich analyses, interviews, humorous reports and brilliant cartoons. Special mention should be made of the hilarious daily column of B Raghavan, who also provided a lot of food for thought. Pazha Karuppiah, who quit AIADMK (was it his sixth switch over of parties?) was at his acidic best.
Thanthi TV set out in its analyses a wide range of discussions, interviews… Its chief news editor Rangaraj Pandey, presenter Hariharan and the analysis by Arun Krishnamurthy, psephologist of Krish Info Media, raised the bar, set new standards for election coverage.
The different opinion polls conducted in various stages and the exit polls added their share of goofing up. The closest predictions came from Times Now-C Voter and Thanthi TV-Krish Infomedia. Especially the latter set a new trend of reliable sampling and, what I understand, at extremely low cost. The other polls breezily predicted a facile victory for DMK and erred on the wrong side by a mile.
For five decades, the Dravidian parties have thrived on a culture of freebies. This election witnessed promise of further largesse like waiver of farm loans, free cell phones, scooters for women at half price, 100 units of electricity free, et al. The state’s finances are in bad shape with subsidies through freebies and debts of over Rs 200,000 crore fully eating revenue receipts, forcing fresh borrowings for even modest capital expenditure. This time there is an added problem: Tamil Nadu presently gets around Rs 30,000 crore by way of excise duty on liquor. The promise of re-introduction of prohibition will impact the largest source of state revenue.
Jerome K Jerome put it in his master piece Three Men in a Boat: “these measures may be crude, but they are effective,” in some other context. Dravidian parties know fully of this aphorism.