Thursday, April 30, 2009

The back story of the gigantic election operation: The role of election observers

This story is an attempt to bring forth one aspect of the Election Commission’s back-office work in an incredible effort through an individual story of an election observer to ensure free and fair voting. It underlines the gargantuan effort that goes into conducting a general election in India with all its problems of limited or sometimes no infrastructure, violent caste and communal divides, topographical extremities, and so on, writes Anil Padmanabhan in The Mint.

Not sure how many of you will agree, but I definitely feel a sense of pride when I hear references to India, despite the warts and all, being the world’s largest democracy, with a voter base that’s at least twice the size of the entire population of the US, the world’s oldest democracy. But that is the big story—what about the backstory on how this gigantic operation works? Like all back-office stories, it remains largely untold.

This is an attempt to bring forth one aspect of this incredible effort through an individual story of an election observer appointed by the Election Commission (EC) to ensure free and fair voting. It was built around a conversation I had with Ashok Lavasa, then director in the department of economic affairs in the ministry of finance, immediately after the general election of 1998, and picked up when I re-established contact with him earlier this year. Lavasa is presently serving as principal secretary (power) in the state government of Haryana.

Ahead of the 1998 Lok Sabha election, Lavasa, the election observer for the Bayana Lok Sabha constituency in Rajasthan, discovered while perusing the data for the previous elections that one of the villages actually showed no polled vote despite having around 100 voting adults.

Curious, Lavasa decided to journey to the village. Easier said than done, since the village only had a pathway connecting to the road head. He managed to procure a tractor and complete the 3-4km journey from the road head and reached the village by dusk. By then, as is typical of rural India, word had already spread and the village was awaiting the visit of an “official”. In the light provided by a clutch of kerosene lanterns, Lavasa identified himself as an election observer and made it clear that he was not a government representative there to address grievances. He then went on to ask the villagers why they had not voted.

Lavasa recalls that he did not anticipate their response: The villagers had chosen to boycott the poll as a protest against the authorities for repeatedly ignoring their requests for a proper road. According to them, the problem became most acute during the monsoon, when the village was completely cut off, making it impossible to access even medical help or to cremate a body. Hence, the village collectively decided to boycott the poll—or cast a negative vote—and hoped the protest would draw a response.

Technically, they had cast a negative vote, which never got recorded as such. Under the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961, a voter who wants to cast a negative vote must inform the returning officer, who will register his/her name and address in an election book, though it will no longer be a secret ballot.

(Ironically, 13 years after the village cast its negative vote, the Supreme Court has taken up public interest litigation which demands that the ballot paper should include an option that rejects all candidates, thereby ensuring the choice remains a secret; the matter was referred to a constitutional bench, as reported in Mint on 23 February.)

This compelling story about the role of the election observer—appointed by the EC to ensure free and fair conduct of the poll—underlines the gargantuan effort that goes into conducting a general election in India with all its problems of limited or sometimes no infrastructure, violent caste and communal divides, topographical extremities, and so on.

Read more here.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Internet, Transparency and Politics

A talk by Barun Mitra, Chairperson of the Liberty Institute, a Delhi-based think tank, was held at CIS recently, organised by Zainab Bawa in relation to her CIS-RAW project on 'Transparency and Politics'. In this post, the third in a series exploring questions of transparency and politics, Zainab reports on the lecture and discussion.

On April 15, 2009, the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) hosted a talk by Barun Mitra on “Internet, Transparency and Politics”. Barun Mitra is the Chairperson of Liberty Institute, a think tank based in Delhi. Liberty Institute conducts research and advocacy on policy issues ranging from health, environment and trade to democracy and governance.

In 2004, Liberty Institute developed (henceforth to be referred to as EI) to compile information that electoral candidates provided in the affidavits they filed before elections. These affidavits contain details of the candidate’s assets and liabilities, education background, PAN number, income tax records and criminal records, if any. The purpose of compiling this information was to standardise it and make it available for the voters in a comprehensive format. This, in turn, would enable voters to use the information and make informed choices when casting their votes.

EI has undergone several rounds of iterations and is already in the third generation of its development. The aim has been to build a robust database that will allow citizens to extract information as per their specific and nuanced queries and use it during the elections and afterwards, to enforce accountability on the part of the elected representatives. Barun Mitra began his talk by emphasising that EI was more than just a website, contrary to what he found was the initial perception of most audiences. He explained, “I was not interested in merely the information. The larger question driving my initiative was ‘how do we look at politics’?” EI was developed to introduce a different paradigm of understanding politics and participating in it.

The interesting aspect of Barun Mitra’s talk was the question he asked--“What makes information flow?” He decided to move beyond the passé rhetoric of “information is power”. Two specific experiences enabled Barun to understand this question around the flow of information. “I had made a presentation to audiences in Kerala about EI in 2008, trying to solicit their support in disseminating the information on the site to local groups in the state. However, the audience in Kerala saw EI only as a website and raised questions accordingly. Following this, I made a presentation to slum dwellers in Delhi who immediately began to demand information about the candidates who were going to contest from their constituencies in the 2008 New Delhi state assembly elections. The slum dwellers and some of the groups working with them even asked me to provide the information in Hindi and local languages. I was surprised by the fact that two vastly diverse audiences responded in such dramatically different ways to EI. That is when I realized that those who have sustained our democracy, namely the poor, need this kind of information. There is a demand for it among them and therefore, we need to supply it. The second experience was from Gujarat. During the 2007 state assembly elections, we found that a number of local media collectives and the panchayats had used the information on EI. This was because the mainstream media was covering the major politicians and candidates in this election while the local groups needed information on all kinds of candidates contesting from their constituencies. I have now come to believe that demand and supply are two aspects to information and it needs to be provided accordingly where the demand for it is emanating from.”

Barun also reiterated that EI is non-judgmental, in that it leaves it to the audiences to decide how they want to interpret the information. This has been a significant paradigm shift in transparency initiatives that are being developed on the belief that providing more information to people enhances engagement between people and the state. Websites of government departments continue to provide information which they see as important for the citizenry. For instance, see, the website of the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation, which claims to be transparent and provides particular kinds of information, while concealing other aspects of the project development and implementation. On the other hand, some non-government organisations are focusing on organising large chunks of information concerning particular aspects of governance, and presenting it to people in a way that allows them to extract that information which they find relevant.

One of Barun Mitra’s goals for the future is to develop parameters for judging the performance of elected representatives At the launch of EI in Bangalore on April 16, he pointed out that while he can provide information about the attendance records of MPs (Members of Parliament) in the Lok Sabha (House of the People) sessions, it would be inaccurate to judge the MP’s performance on the basis of this criteria. This is because MPs often sign the attendance register but they may not sit through the Parliament session. He therefore feels that more robust criteria have to be developed which will provide a somewhat holistic picture to the people about the performance of their elected representatives.

Finally, Barun Mitra spoke on the issue of authenticity of the information filed in the affidavits. “People often ask, ‘how authentic is this information?’ The election commission does not take it on itself to verify this information. But I would say that authenticity is a secondary issue. First, we have to make information available to the people. People will then, of their own accord, raise questions about the authenticity of the information. For instance, the Criminal Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has filed cases in the Supreme Court challenging the authenticity and sources of the assets declared by current chief minister (CM) of Uttar Pradesh (UP) Mayawati and former CM Mulayam Singh Yadav.” Specifically, Mayawati’s assets in 2003, which amounted to Rs. 1 crore, increased to Rs. 50 crores in 2007. This information came to light through the affidavit which Mayawati had to file before the state assembly elections in UP in 2007. “Filing such a case was possible only because Mayawati and Mulayam Singh were compelled to provide information about their assets to the public.”

Barun Mitra’s talk raises an important question for me: how effective are initiatives like EI in fostering interaction between the state and the citizens? I will address this question in my next blog post, where I will examine the case of the Digital City project in Amsterdam. I will look at the concepts and practices of cyberspace, urban space and citizenship through the Digital City Project and other projects undertaken to foster transparency. I will then try to analyse the initiatives undertaken during the 2009 general elections in India and make some tentative remarks on democracy and participation.

Zainab Bawa
Ph.D. Student and Independent Researcher

Monday, April 13, 2009

EI Launch in Bangalore

It gives us great pleasure to announce the EI launch in Bangalore.
Press of Institute of India and Liberty Institute, in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, cordially invite you to the launch of Empowering India, in Chennai. Mr Sudhakar Rao, Chief Secretary, Government of Karnataka has consented to release the web site. Justice Santosh Hegde, (retd.) Supreme Court of India will be the guest of honour. All are welcome at 10 am, on April 16, 2009.

Find the details of the programme here.

Making Democracy Meaningful!

A talk on "Politics on the Internet"

The 2009 general elections in India have been preceded by various initiatives that seek to provide information to the voters about candidates contesting the elections. The aim of providing this information is to help voters to make 'informed choices' when casting their votes. With the advent of the internet, information is becoming more accessible. What is the impact of the internet on the political landscape in India?
Barun Mitra will be speaking at The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore, on 15th April 2009.

Find more details here.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Political campaigns suffer as India Inc tightens its purse strings

With a recession-hit India Inc tightening its purse strings, there has been a significant dip in corporate contributions to the election campaign chests of political parties. Estimates vary, but the consensus is that corporate donations are down by at least 20% this time.

The number of companies volunteering financial support has come down, while the others are reluctant to fully redeem their commitments. There are also those who have wriggled out of commitments, citing their plunging bottom line.

Political parties claim that the hit is bigger than what companies themselves say. Parties say corporate contributions are down 35%-40%, although industrialists insist that ''political demand is inelastic'', and despite these trying times, they have cut back by just 20%.

Said a senior Congress leader: ''We are having a tough time. These companies have to be reminded. Few are coming forward on their own.'' BJP sources agreed on the trend but righteously claimed that they could make do as they were not planning to run a lavish campaign.

Sources in the Samajwadi Party, which is known for its good links with industrial houses, also said corporate support was down 40% from the last time. ''But we will not be affected as we have committed supporters,'' claimed a SP leader.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Income Tax officers after rich candidates in Andhra Pradesh

An article from the Times of India.

Apparently stunned by the high level of income that has been disclosed by some of the candidates in their election affidavits, the income-tax department has suo motu decided to take up 50 such affidavits and investigate further to ascertain whether I-T for the same has been paid for.
Among the 50 such affidavits they are taking up for immediate action include that of Congress candidate from Vijayawada Lok Sabha seat Lagadapati Rajagopal (Rs 229 crore); PRP president Chiranjeevi, candidate from Tirupati and Palakole assembly seats (Rs 88 crore); PRP general secretary and Anakapalli LS seat candidate Allu Aravind (Rs 24 crore); Nizamabad LS Congress candidate Madhu Yaskhi Goud and TDP’s nominee from Kadapa LS seat P Srikanth Reddy (Rs 30 crore each).

I-T sources said the objective of taking these affidavits for scrutiny was to find out whether the candidates were paying income tax for the assets they have declared. “But we will also probe the assets of the family members and that will help us unearth black money or assets for which tax has not been paid. Normally, such scrutiny will take at least two years to be completed. But in these 50-odd cases, we plan to complete the probe in three months,” one official said.

Read the full article here.

Election Commission rules that columns in affidavits cannot be left blank

To prevent candidates from suppressing facts in their affidavits, the Election Commission has ruled that the nominees cannot leave any column of the form blank, a top electoral officer said. But he made it clear that contestants cannot be barred from the poll fray for giving false information in the affidavit. As per a Supreme Court ruling, candidature cannot be cancelled for giving false information or suppressing facts, reports

Nomination cannot be cancelled for false affidavit

To prevent candidates from suppressing facts in their affidavits, the Election Commission has ruled that the nominees cannot leave any column of the form blank, a top electoral officer said here Monday.

But he made it clear that contestants cannot be barred from the poll fray for giving false information in the affidavit.

'The EC has come out with two advisories on candidates' affidavits. Firstly, the affidavits have to be typed and not handwritten. This was done as a section of candidates in some states used to give handwritten affidavits, which were illegible,' said West Bengal Chief Electoral Officer Debasish Sen.

'Another problem was suppression of information by some candidates, who used to leave some of the columns blank. So, in another advisory, the EC has said none of the columns can be left vacant. The candidate has to write at least 'nil' or 'not applicable' in those columns in which he has nothing to add,' Sen said after inaugurating the state chapter of the National Election Watch.

But as per a Supreme Court ruling, candidature cannot be cancelled for giving false information or suppressing facts. 'This is because the system of filing affidavit was introduced much after the electoral laws came into force'.

Read more on Indian Elections here.

Empowering India in Pondicherry University

We hope that citizens find the data on Empoweing India useful. In that light it is heartening to receive feedback about the initiative. Below is a note by a political science student, Priyanka - who has helped us earlier to digitize TN affidavits.

Utility of Empowering India
Our Political Science department had recently organized a programme to increase awareness about the elections in the college and we had invited a Mr.Venkatasubramaniam, the ex-vice chancellor of Pondicherry University. In his address, he spoke very highly of the efforts the Empowering India is making and encouraged all the students to avail of its resources.
~ Priyanka

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Some thoughts on electoral reforms in India

Below is a piece mailed to us by a citizen - Mr Chudamani Ratnam. These are good, debatable points. We put it here for the open discussions, knowing that you would have lots to contribute. Take a look and do respond.

Electoral Reforms in India
It appears that there are some 700+ Mayors of towns in the USA. Some time ago, around 2006-7, at their annual conclave, under the Chairmanship of the Mayor of Seattle, they adopted a resolution to implement certain far reaching environmental protection measures. This was at a time when the US Federal Administration had a somewhat negative attitude towards such green policies. I e-mailed the Mayor of Seattle congratulating the mayors on their wisdom and went on to suggest that democracy in the USA would be better served if the Houses of Congress were abolished and the country governed by a President elected by the Mayors. Unfortunately I didn’t get a reply.

Leading on from such ideas it seems to me that elections in their present form in India should be abolished. People would only vote to elect their Panchayats, redefined to include municipal corporations, etc. These bodies would form an electoral college to elect the state assemblies. Candidates for the state assemblies need not be members of the Panchayat, but should be voters in that state. At the next higher level, the state assemblies would form another electoral college to elect the national assembly, i.e. Lok Sabha, not unlike the way the present Rajya Sabha is elected. The Lok Sabha would elect the Prime Minister and Cabinet, who need not be members of the Lok Sabha, again bearing some similarities to the US system.

It may be wishful thinking on my part but I can see some advantages over the present Indian system. To start with this proposal would be administratively much simpler and the deployment of thousands of paramilitary forces may not be needed. The criminal element would be hopefully eliminated beyond the panchayat stage and politics would be accessible to a better class of citizen. More sophisticated electoral processes such as the second transferable vote can be implemented at the electoral college stages. Lastly money may no longer be a factor in politics.
~ By Chudamani Ratnam

Crores poured for the General Elections 2009

Spending is zooming as it has become a ritual to bribe voters

  • Overall estimated expense on election 2009: Rs 10,000-16,000 crore. Doesn't include non-cash "gifts", about 25% is cash bribes
  • In a constituency with 4 candidates: Rs 1 crore approximate authorised expenditure. Rs 5-16 crore actual expenditure
  • Cash bribes from candidates spent on liquor, repaying loans, daily expenses and other essentials that cannot wait—usually unproductive expenditure
  • The average cash handout is expected to rise, according to a CMS survey, from Rs 100 per person in election 2004, to Rs 500 this year
  • Election expenses likely to be about 0.2% of the GDP in 2009; not significant by itself, except that the entire sum is spent over just one month

Some describe it as the third stimulus package, after two official ones, for an economy that's hardly in the pink of health.

Others dismiss it as a national phenomenon. Either way, as India prepares to vote in a new government this May, the polls are also a once-in-a-five-year chance for many voters to make a quick buck. This year, election-related expenses—official and unofficial—are expected to zoom: From Rs 4,500 crore in 2004, to anything between Rs 10,000-16,000 crore.

And yes, urban as well as rural voters are expected to line up for illegal cash benefits and other freebies. Of this, 80 per cent is likely to be spe nt out of the pocket of individual candidates (the Election Commission limits their pre-poll expenses to Rs 25 lakh). "It's an under-estimation, but we believe that each successful candidate could spend Rs 5 crore in his or her constituency. It was half this figure in the previous national vote," says N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman of the Centre for Media Studies (CMS), an independent think-tank.

Add spending by minor candidates, and the numbers grow exponentially for each constituency.

There are 543 constituencies for the Lok Sabha, and a major one, with three or more candidates, could be worth Rs 5-16 crore in expenses. The estimates, made by CMS, are based on two surveys it conducted in 2007 and 2008 across income groups. "The spending—Rs 10,000 crore, which is the minimum we expect—is unimaginable. It's never happened at this scale before," says Rao.

What's worrying is that politicians don't bribe in the actual hope of winning. "I don't believe that Indian voters are electing the leader who pays them the most money, or selecting one who gives them more immediate gratification—a TV set, a sari or blankets," says Bhibhu Mohapatra, a Fellow with the India Development Foundation (IDF), a research outfit based in New Delhi.

Mohapatra thinks that pre-election bribes have more cynical underpinnings: "It has become a ritual, a habit, to bribe voters. A candidate cannot ensure his victory by giving a freebie or a cash 'reward'. But by not bribing at all, he ensures defeat in electoral sweepstakes," says Mohapatra. In its own study conducted in New Delhi prior to elections to the Delhi assembly last year, IDF found that almost all slum clusters and colonies were supplied with liquor and cash, in some places free food and snacks. In most clusters, the community elder was approached with the bribe.

Interestingly, the report says, "This was practised by at least three national parties in Delhi," implying that even candidates who don't expect to win use liquor "pouches" and cash—of Rs 500 per voter or thereabouts—only to ensure they stay in the running.

IDF's survey was conducted between October 18 and November 24, 2008; 3,000 households from the Below Poverty Line (BPL) and Above Poverty Line (APL) categories were interviewed for it."If Rs 25 lakh is the officially allowed limit, and Rs 5 crore is actually being spent, then the difference is what we call black or illegally generated income by politicians and parties," says Prof Arun Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has written extensively on the black economy and authored a book on the subject. "To the extent that TV sets are given away and saris are bought for prospective women voters, we could see (the bribes) as a redistribution of that illegal wealth," he says.With that much money floating in the system, it wouldn't be misplaced to see larger benefits, or at least some cost-savings, for the voting public.

Unfortunately, the benefits of these bribes are too thinly spread out—not targeted at all, say economists—and ultimately, the sums are negligible compared with the size of the economy. They will not create any "stimulus" at all, avers Kumar. At Rs 10,000 crore, the electoral spending is about 0.2 per cent of the country's Rs 50 lakh crore GDP. "Hardly anything, it's basically a waste," he says. Happily, at least some proportion of the Rs 10,000-16,000 crore will go into purchasing and running services—the printers, transporters, counters, election watchers, messengers, guards, billboard painters—that will actually be useful for running the election itself.

Read the full article here.

Google empowering India!

India's 15th general election: tools for citizen empowerment

At Google, we believe information is fundamentally empowering. While all of our technologies demonstrate a commitment to this guiding principle, information is especially important when a society comes together to participate in democratic elections. Beginning ten days from today, more than 700 million eligible voters in India will over the course of four weeks have the opportunity to participate in the largest democratic event in human history — India's 15th general election.

Today, along with a wide range of partners, we are happy to announce the launch of the Google India Elections Centre - available in English and in Hindi. People from across India can use the centre to do the following:

  • Confirm their voter registration status
  • Discover their polling location
  • View their constituency on a map
  • Consume relevant election-related news, blogs, videos, and quotations
  • Evaluate the status of development in their constituency across a range of indicators
  • Learn about the background of their Member of Parliament and this year's candidates

With still more features to be added during the election, we hope the site will be an ongoing resource for analysis, governance, and democracy in India after the election.

This project would not have been possible without the shared vision of a broad coalition of partners: the Association for Democratic Reforms, HT Media Limited, Indicus Analytics, the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, the Liberty Institute, and PRS Legislative Services. These groups are the true champions of promoting a more transparent democracy, and we're privileged to be able to shine a light on their work on the occasion of India's 15th Lok Sabha polls. We're hopeful not only that the elections centre will further a culture that seeks access to information, but that it will also yield positive changes in voting patterns during the upcoming polls. Please visit the site, select your constituency, and get started! Spread the word about what you learn and, of course, don't forget to visit the polls.

Read the original blog here.