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EC Plan to Count Booth-Level Votes Together Won’t End Intimidation

The EC’s move to aggregate booth-wise votes is unlikely to put an end to voter intimidation, says Abheek Barman.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
Will the aggregation of votes and not revealing booth-wise results help prevent voter intimidation? (Photo: Lijumol Joseph/ <b>The Quint</b>)

The government believes it can shield voters from pre-poll intimidation or post-election retribution by candidates by tweaking how votes are counted. Alas, it might be hoping for too much, too soon. But first, the details of the plan.

Proposed first by the Election Commission, the statutory body that conducts state and federal polls, in 2008, the idea is simple. Voters today press buttons on electronic voting machines (EVM) to register their choice for a party’s candidate. These EVMs are gathered and votes polled on each, for every polling booth, in each polling station, are tallied.

Today, parties and candidates can access vote data according to each polling station at a fairly disaggregated, micro-level, corresponding to specific localities within a constituency. The availability of such detailed information, the EC believes, gives parties and candidates a very good idea of which neighbourhood voted which way – in some cases down to the level of a village or mohalla.

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Women show their voter cards before casting votes at a polling booth during the  assembly elections in Kharagpur, West Bengal, April 2016. (Photo: PTI)
Women show their voter cards before casting votes at a polling booth during the assembly elections in Kharagpur, West Bengal, April 2016. (Photo: PTI)

Will it Stop Harassment?

Threats and reprisals may follow. To prevent this, the EC says EVMs across polling stations should be connected to a ‘totalising’ machine that adds up partywise votes across stations. That way an aggregate, spanning several booths across a constituency will be available, not data that pinpoints specific polling stations. So far, so good. But
will it stop harassment or intimidation?

Unlikely. Remember, EVMs were first used in 16 assembly seats in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi during the 1998 elections in these states. Before that, all polling was done using paper ballot papers, stuffed into boxes.

During the era of paper voting, a process similar to ‘totalising’ was used: ballot papers across polling centres were mixed up, to make sure a particular area’s electoral preferences didn’t become apparent. Did that prevent parties or politicians from knowing which way people were voting? No. Did mixing up ballot papers minimise the cajoling, bribery or intimidation of voters? No.  
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Intimidating Lower Caste, Poor Voters

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar that suggests widespread intimidation of lower caste, poor voters – indeed entire villages and mohallas – by powerful political and caste interests in that earlier era of paper ‘totalising’.

A friend of mine, Kumar Sanjay Singh, once told me how adult males of his extended (and very feudal) Thakur family visited certain villages in Bihar the evening before polling day, to tell their residents to stay away from election booths the next day.

“They went armed. With lathis, hunting rifles, pistols, sometimes carbines even,” Singh had said. Did these tactics work? “Of course. What option did these poor people have? They had to work our fields, take loans from us, graze their cattle on our land. The weapons were largely symbolic.”

This conversation took place almost a quarter of a century ago, when with the sole exception of one Bhola Paswan Shastri, a Dalit member of the Congress (O) which expelled Indira Gandhi, every chief minister of Bihar had been upper caste. The Mandal movement of the early 1990s broke this upper caste monopoly on intimidation – and power.

Access to Political Power

Unsurprisingly, Lalu Prasad was the first Yadav, a member of Other Backward Castes (OBCs), to come to power in Bihar. Nitish Kumar, the current incumbent is a Kurmi, also an OBC. Clearly, in Bihar as well as Uttar Pradesh, the scales of power have tipped away from upper caste folks.

In much of India, voter intimidation, authority and spoils depends on one’s position in the caste or religious or tribal ladder. Gujarat politics has been dominated by Patidars, a powerful, land owning caste that diversified into business and trade. Marathas, who served as soldiers for the Deccan sultans, then for Shivaji and later ruled their little principalities before being suppressed by the British, have the whip hand in Maharashtra.

In some places like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, early social movements broke these rigid hierarchies and allowed lower castes access to political power. Here, coercion has largely yielded to coaxing.

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Snapshot

Can ‘Totalising’ Reform Electoral Process?

  • EC suggests setting up a ‘totatlising’ machine to prevent booth-wise data from being revealed and hence prevent voter intimidation.
  • Prior to 1998, when paper ballot was still prevalent, the practice of mixing up papers didn’t ensure safety from intimidation.
  • States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were known in the 90s to intimidate lower caste, poor voters.
  • Voter intimidation, an inherent part of electoral process in India has a lot to do with a dominating caste trying to access corridors of power.
  • While EC’s move might be well-intentioned, it is the social reform only that can stop voter intimidation by political parties.
A man walks past an electronic screen displaying election results outside the office of the election commission in New Delhi,  16 May, 2009. (Photo: Reuters)
A man walks past an electronic screen displaying election results outside the office of the election commission in New Delhi, 16 May, 2009. (Photo: Reuters)
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EC’s Plan Well-Intentioned

Bengal, where I come from, has a peculiar political pathology. Here, caste or sectarian identity plays little role in rajniti. But from the mid-1960s, Bengal politics is characterised by extreme violence and coercion. In the Congress era it began as attempts to suppress extreme-Left movements.

This changed – ironically, under the Left – into an elaborate network of snooping, intimidation, localised brutality and an endless cycle of retribution.

In opposition, Mamata Banerjee used to call this “scientific rigging.” Now in power, she uses the same tactics of coercion and intimidation to keep rival politicians – and voters – under her rubber flip-flops. Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) was among the few parties that rejected the EC’s new plan.

So, yes, the EC’s and government’s intention of ‘totalising’ votes to minimise voter intimidation and reprisals is good. Unfortunately, without widespread social reform, empowerment of people and economic development, such technical quick-fixes are unlikely to achieve intended goals.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached at @AbheekBarman)

Also read:
In Bengal’s Spooky Assembly Polls, a Ghostly Dance of Democracy
WB Polls: State Forces Turn a Blind Eye to TMC’s Lumpenism

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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