Opinion: Evolving elections in India? Understand how the lengthy election process is becoming a hindrance

Ananya Shroff
7 Min Read

Ashok Malik:With a collective sigh of relief, India prepares for the final day of voting in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections on Saturday. As exciting as democracy is, the duration of the election process is getting increasingly long. It has exhausted candidates and campaigners and even more so citizens. The election season actually began in January. By the time the new government and ministers are formed and pending key civil service appointments are made, it will be the end of June. In short, the country will have devoted six months to elections. While the mandate of the people must always be followed without exception, this long duration invites some questions.

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Can the time taken for elections be reduced?

Elections postpone policymaking. Despite good intentions, inertia develops in government – ​​whether in New Delhi or in the states. Even routine decision-making is affected. Trade and investment clarity among domestic or international stakeholders is impacted. As the number of voters grows, such deadlines will become increasingly impractical. It is reasonable to ask whether India can reduce the time taken by making the election process more efficient. Politics responsive to the demands of a modern economy and society are equally worthy. Ease of living and ease of doing business need to be complemented not just by ease of voting, but also by ease of campaigning and ease of conducting elections.

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Demand for paradigm change

In recent years, the Election Commission has made untiring efforts to streamline the election process. EVMs have become common since 2004. Rapid revision of the electoral rolls, smooth issuance of voter ID cards and a significant increase in the number of polling stations are commendable achievements. However, the next election in the late 2030s calls for radical change, not incremental changes. With unprecedented internal migration, the use of postal ballots will not only increase, but will increase substantially. Voting from home is currently restricted to people above 85 years of age or the physically challenged. This too will see an increase. In such a situation, voting from the existing postal ballot system can take digital or online forms with necessary measures. Even in the absence of this, voting facilities other than polling stations will need to be matched with the demographics

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Voting time needs to be changed

The election schedule needs to take into account the evolution of society's internal habits and lifestyles. In Britain, voting takes place exactly a month after our election results are announced. Polling booths open from 7 am and close at 10 pm. In India, which has borrowed many election methods from Britain, they close at 6 pm. This is surprising. In summer, much of Indian social and economic life – even going to the market to buy groceries – takes place after sunset. Perhaps voting only during daylight hours was mandated in the 1950s because of inadequate electricity, poor passenger transport and security concerns. Eight decades later, this needs revision.

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It is important to keep in mind the dates

True, the election dates do not take into account traditional holidays and festivals. Shouldn't the Election Commission consider other parameters as well? This year, Delhi voted on a Saturday. The Thursday before that was a Buddha Purnima holiday. Schools had begun summer vacations earlier that week. The concept of long weekend vacations is a relatively recent addition to India. But, especially in urban constituencies, such potential clashes need to be coordinated with the polling calendar. Otherwise it will impact voter turnout.

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Difference in polling dates

A major challenge in Lok Sabha elections is to reduce the gap between multi-phase elections. In 2024, a gap of 7 to 10 days has been proposed. This time gap is reasonable in terms of movement of security forces and other arrangements. For example, can this period be reduced by increasing resources, hiring more aircraft or better coordination? If so, elections could be held in early summer, rather than dragging them into peak summer. Such an effort does not involve political negotiations. It requires a logical and systematic exercise involving the Election Commission, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Education and state governments. This would require harmonizing the dates of school examinations every fifth year. Again, it is advisable that in the interest of predictability and regularity, this plan be initiated before 2029 and future elections.

Why the gap of two days?

Serious consideration should be given to eliminating the 48-hour period between the end of campaigning and polling. This will add two more days between polling cycles. The 48-hour 'silence' was an idealistic rule framed in a simpler era. It gave voters a 'quiet time' to consider the speeches, promises and manifestos of candidates and parties and make an informed choice. Today, while campaigning stops at the local level, it continues in the media and social media even during polling. Speeches from other states and constituencies – where polling takes place later – are broadcast targeting the voters of that day. In such a situation, what is achieved by this 48-hour gap? Short-term elections are not just a civic convenience. It promotes clean politics. The longer the election process, the more money parties will need. Essentially, it promotes familiar patterns and distortions of campaign money. It also has a multiplier effect on governance and public life. In such a situation, the responsibility lies with the Election Commission and the incoming government.
(The author is Partner, The Asia Group and President, India Business.)

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