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MEDICINE MEN

“Reform” is the new prime minister’s favourite mantra. Narendra Modi has promised to revive India’s moribund economy and prod its slothful bureaucracy to action. Surprisingly, electoral reform seems to have escaped the attention of the hawk-eyed Modi. That there is indeed a case for reforming India’s electoral process is brought to light by the two ‘medicine men’ who crossed swords before the polls in West Bengal.

Sudhir Kumar Rakesh, the special observer appointed by the Election Commission, had declared that he knew of the right medicine to cure the ailments — rigging, violence and intimidation of voters — that have afflicted elections in Bengal for years now. Unfortunately for Rakesh, the Trinamul Congress’s Anubrata Mondal, who has been credited with routing the TMC’s opponents in Birbhum, possessed an effective anti-dote. The results of a recent booth-level survey confirm Mondal’s famed remedies. In Booth 250 in Sainthia, which falls under the Birbhum Lok Sabha seat, the TMC bagged 721 votes. Six votes each were cast for the Left Front and the Congress while the Bharatiya Janata Party received five. In adjoining Labhpur, Booth 106 registered 984 votes for the TMC. The figures for the Left Front, the BJP and the Congress read 13, 4 and 1, respectively. Such decisive mandates in favour of the ruling party were by no means Birbhum’s feat alone. In Hooghly’s Arambagh, the Left Front was paid back in its own coin. Khanakul’s Booth 19 cast 902 votes for the TMC and 12 for the Left.

Rakesh’s medicine failed on account of faulty prescriptions. ‘Vulnerability mapping’, a crucial exercise meant to identify booths susceptible to electoral malpractices, is conducted on the basis of information provided by the local police and block development officers, who remain subservient to the ruling party. Inputs from the Opposition are not accepted while drawing up the list of sensitive booths. The deployment of Central forces — 500 companies had been sent to Bengal on this occasion — is based on such erroneous vulnerability assessments. Again, the EC had approved a formula as a result of which single-polling stations, which accounted for 50 per cent of Bengal’s 77,252 booths, were not manned by the Central forces. In a society where the arms of the State, especially the bureaucracy and the police, have been stripped of autonomy, the stipulations endorsed by the EC to conduct fair polls raise credible questions about the foresight of this constitutional body.

The perverse success of Mondal’s medication, as is evident from the booth-level assessments, should not go unaddressed. Political intervention in the electoral process and the infringement of the people’s right to freely elect public representatives undermine India’s democratic credentials. But what has to be borne in mind is that the degree of intervention is varied. Turn-outs are usually higher in rural constituencies because the robust patronage network between people and politicians implies that votes are cast as the only guarantee of State services. Cities, the cynosure of the courts, civil society and the media, stand a better chance of defying the orders of thuggish parties. Equally diverse are the forms of repression. Rakesh had prepared himself to take on ‘booth capturing’ in Bengal. But he had no answer for the entrenched malady of voters’ persecution.

Personnel who were assigned electoral duties have their own share of fears: an exhausting itinerary, crumbling infrastructure and minimal security. Is there then any merit in the proposition of elections being ‘privatized’? The bureaucracy and the police could serve as facilitators for an efficient, impartial force raised specifically to conduct polls under the EC’s supervision. Modi, a staunch believer in ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ should ponder this.