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Poll lesson for Nepal team

A team from Nepal was in Howrah on Wednesday for a first-hand feel of poll day in the world’s largest democracy.

Led by Nepal election commissioner Ila Sharma, the 16-member team comprised members from the country’s election commission as well as the law ministry and the judiciary, who double as returning officers during elections.

“At UNDP, we have this Election Visitor Programme for new democracies and countries that have recently come out of conflict or are in transition. India is considered one of the best in the world when it comes to elections, given how we manage despite our vastness and complexity,” said Sumeeta Banerji, head of democratic governance, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). She was escorting the team that reached the city on Tuesday evening.

Similar teams from Namibia, Lesotho, Nigeria and Malaysia had gone poll-watching to Bangalore. Next week, Kenyan and League of Arab Nations officials will be taken to Shimla. A team from Mauritius would come to Calcutta to watch the counting process, Banerji added.

Team leader Sharma, one of the five election commissioners in Nepal, called on CEO Sunil Kumar Gupta and his officials on poll eve. “We watched a video conference he did with police officers in the districts. It was amazing how calm they were hours before polling. Even my team members kept commenting on it. We remember how it was with us,” she exclaimed, while moving from booth to booth in Howrah the day after.

Sharma was appointed in March 2013 and her team has conducted a Constituent Assembly election last November. “It was our second election since we became a democracy. Technically it is called the ‘next’ election because the first Parliament that was entrusted to draft the Constitution could not finish doing so,” she said.

At Dumurjola stadium in Howrah on Tuesday, they watched the distribution of election material to personnel of about 8,400 polling stations. “Officials get to know their assigned polling booth barely a day before voting. The EVMs are randomly distributed so there is no scope for malpractice,” Banerji explained.

“We would love to replicate the process. Some of our hilly terrains are so remote that polling personnel have to start at least two days in advance. Sometimes we can’t send helicopters to pick them up after polling. If the weather is bad they may even have to wait a week,” Sharma said.

Nepal had used EVMs gifted by India as a pilot project in five constituencies during its first Constituent Assembly election. “Electronic voting is the way ahead. But we had to revert to ballots as there were too many parties this time.”

EVMs, even when four machines are connected parallely, can take a maximum of 64 candidates. “We had 130 parties,” Sharma said. “But we will surely use EVMs again in our upcoming by-elections.”

India and Nepal are both part of the newly set-up Forum of Election Management Bodies of South Asia.

At Jogesh Chandra Girls School near Howrah Maidan, they witnessed four booths managed by women. “We have tried this out. It was a confidence-booster to see it happening on the ground in India,” Sharma said. They witnessed other innovations such as webcasting and live monitoring of sensitive areas. “They had vehicles fitted with video cameras that could send footage directly to the central office.”

Taking a breather at Belur Math, Sharma said it made more sense for Nepal to learn from India than from the West. “Our backgrounds are similar, so are our problems.”

She had watched polls in Australia too. “They don’t ink the voters. I asked an Aussie poll official: ‘What if they try to vote again?’ ‘Why should they?’ he shot back, bewildered.”