A phenomenon called General Elections
Reviewed by A. Surya Prakash
An Undocumented Wonder: The Great Indian Election
by S.Y.Quraishi.
Pages 434. Rs 795

An Undocumented Wonder: The Great Indian ElectionIn April-May 2014, the Election Commission of India (ECI) made arrangements for electors in the country to exercise their franchise to elect 543 Members of the Lok Sabha. It was attempting something that few institutions in the world would dare to attempt, because of the sheer magnitude of the challenge - a mind-boggling 814 million electors spread across a country that is the most diverse society in the world in terms of ethnicity, religion, language and culture and a nation that throws up geographical, meteorological and demographic challenges in every region and every state. Yet, by and large, the ECI ensured polling and achieved this phenomenal feat with spectacular success.

Given this background, one must welcome the effort of Dr S.Y.Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, to chronicle the amazing achievements of this institution and its contribution to the strengthening of the democratic process in the country, through his book - An Undocumented Wonder: The Great Indian Election.

Quraishi touches a wide range of issues from the conduct of elections in the world's largest democracy; the rumbustious election scenario and the sustained effort of the Election Commission to curb money power and muscle power — considered the bane of elections in India; technological innovations to speed up the electoral process and maximise accountability and transparency; measures to encourage greater voter participation; and the pressing need for electoral reforms.

The book looks back at elections in the country since Independence, the challenges posed to free and fair elections by entrenched social and political forces in different regions of the country, the disenfranchisement of socially backward sections, booth-capturing and such other violent disruptions that the electoral process was subjected to and the steady and firm measures taken by the ECI to meet each of these challenges. Thanks to the efforts of the ECI, much of this is now history.

The narrative is rich anecdotes, which tell us a lot of the lengths to which the ECI would go to ensure free and fair elections and voting rights for all eligible citizens. For example in 2004, the Commission set up a polling booth in an estate in Vadakara Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala, manned by three polling officers, two policemen and a driver just to enable a single voter to cast his vote! While talking of symbols the author gives due credit to the late M.S.Sethi, the last draughtsman employed by the ECI to created the unique symbols used in the country's elections. The Commission put together one hundred of his sketches in the category of 'free symbols’.

Apart from being a chronicler of this extraordinary story of elections, Quraishi takes the opportunity to record his views on the pressing need for electoral reforms. He also talks of the "disturbing phenomenon" of senior IAS and IPS officers hobnobbing with politicians to obtain party tickets and recommends a cooling-off period of one to two years before a government servant can enter politics. Quraishi strongly advocates state funding of political parties and transparency and accountability in regard to the accounts of political parties. He feels political parties must be freed from "dependency on corporate and tainted funds". Also, measures must be taken to strengthen inner-party democracy, including empowerment of the ECI.

Surprisingly, while discussing the need for a level-playing field, Quraishi makes no mention of what he considers to be the biggest impediment in ensuring a level playing field — the naming of most government schemes and programmes worth over Rs 3 lakh crore per annum after icons of one political party (the Congress Party). Obviously, he does not see this as infringement on "the level playing field" that the ECI so assiduously ensures by even prohibiting ministers from using their official cars and staying in government guest houses during election time!

However, this should not detract from Quraishi's extraordinary effort, which he says is designed as an "experiential knowledge product". One is inclined to endorse Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who, in his Foreword, recommends this book to those who are keen to see India become "not just the world's largest but its greatest democracy".