The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Experts stick Bihar label on elections made in America

New Delhi, Nov. 4: The elections in the US have been like polls in Bihar, according to Indian election experts. 'There seems to have been a lot of rigging; looks like Bihar, doesn't it' former chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh commented today.

'It is chaotic in every state,' says Lyngdoh. 'There is no single authority that can settle the disputes. It is as chaotic as the worst parts of this country.'

Lyngdoh, who oversaw the polls in violence-wracked Kashmir and riot-torn Gujarat in 2002, is most forthright with his view on the manner in which the American polls have been conducted. While others choose their words with greater care, Lyngdoh believes he is calling a spade a spade.

Bihar is a recurrent theme in most discussions on the American elections among experts here, some of whom have been to the US. The reason that the Bihar parallel is drawn is plain and simple.

George W. Bush is set to be inaugurated as the US President in January for the second time running but a politician from Bihar exchanged notes on elections with him earlier this year. The man ' former external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha ' was voted out along with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Election-driven politics has meant one thing for Bush and another for Sinha.

Hours before Bush delivered the State of the Union address, Sinha was in the Oval Office and the US President surprised him when he departed from convention and steered the course of the conversation from diplomacy to elections.

The two talked like politicians headed for the hustings. Bush asked Sinha how the Indian elections are conducted and mentioned the 2000 fracas in Florida.

Sinha made the point that he was elected from Hazaribagh in Bihar (now in Jharkhand), a state that has a dubious claim to fame in India's elections.

Indian experts following the US elections closely this time do not fail to mention the Bush-Sinha t'te-'-t'te if only to insinuate that electoral influences can be outsourced ' from Bihar or from Florida ' like the call centre business.

The experts also say that American democracy is shortchanged by an electoral system that is outdated. In large measure, the criticism comes after fulsome praise showered on the Indian Election Commission for conducting polls in the largest democracy in the world.

India's chief election commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy was an observer in Washington during the polls.

Another election commission official, K. Jaganatha Rao, was an observer in the battleground state of Ohio after serving on the Joint UN-Afghan Election Monitoring Body in Afghanistan during last month's polls that conferred legitimacy on Hamid Karzai.

'In my opinion, the US election system will gain by having a greater uniformity but for historical reasons this has not yet been possible,' Krishnamurthy told the BBC in an interview in London on his way back from Washington. 'The Indian electoral system is simpler because of its uniformity.'

M.S. Gill, who introduced electronic voting machines across the country when he was chief election commissioner in 1998, says it is anachronistic that the most technologically developed country should persist with bullock cart era methods.

'The American election system is archaic ' it is 200 years old. It is important of course to understand that the US is federal but it is difficult to understand why every state should have it own, sometimes weird, system of voting,' says Gill.

'They have between 50 and 70 different methods of voting. In Oregon, for instance, it is only by postal ballot, no voter needs to go to a booth!' the former election commissioner says.

Gill introduced the electronic voting machines for national elections in 1998, when the total number of registered voters in India was 670 million, 'more than the total populations of the US and western Europe put together'.

The total voting-age population in the US is 217 million and the turnout in the elections this time was recorded at 52.5 per cent. In 2002, the US had 128.15 million registered voters, less than a fifth of the total electorate in India. The difference in figures is just one indicator of the complexities involved in elections in India and the US.

But the lack of uniformity in American elections is also a reflection of its powerful local governments that can make conducting polls difficult. Scott Baldauf, South Asia bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, who is from Bush's home state (Texas) and who covered the elections in India this year says: 'I was amazed at how smoothly elections went off here (in India). In the US, there are different systems and they can differ from county to county, because there is such a value to local self government.'

Baldauf says local governments have the power to reject the imposition of a central election authority that will dictate how the vote should be conducted. 'What you really need in America is an election commission but there is going to be automatic resistance to that idea. There are arguments for keeping things the way they are.'

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