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November 21, 1998


44.7 million voters. 56,234 polling booths. Rs 320 million. Organising an election in India's largest state.

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Archana Masih and Vaihayasi P Daniel in Bhopal

What is it like to organise an election in the largest state of the Union?

"Well, there are many more complaints to handle," says A K Vijayavargiya, chief election officer of Madhya Pradesh, as he ponders over what it is to conduct an election in India's biggest state. "Complaints of partisan behaviour or of violation of the moral code of conduct."

"Obviously organising an election in such a large state is more difficult," explains Gopal Reddy, the joint chief electoral officer. The sheer size makes it difficult. There are so many far-flung areas, highly sensitive areas… Dacoit areas... Seven states border Madhya Pradesh. Infiltration of undesirable elements makes maintaining law and order difficult. Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are not having elections so all the more reason for these elements to infiltrate."

Madhya Pradesh, which goes to the polls on Wednesday, November 25, has 44.7 million voters and a whopping 56,234 polling booths manned by 227,336 officers in 61 districts. Coordinating the smooth flow of man and material to and fro is a gargantuan task for Vijayavargiya and his officers. At the election commission office in Bhopal, a crisis situation unfolded before us when certain vital papers were misplaced.

Says Reddy, "I have worked in the districts and was the collector in Indore and Chhindwara during elections. As the returning officer you are liable for any decision you make. And you are under pressure. But I was under equal pressure 5 minutes ago when these papers could not be found!"

Reddy has several species of phones on his desk. A hotline to Delhi. A hotline to get in touch with the districts. The control room nearby has already begun functioning around the clock. Reddy and his boss Vijayavargiya have to be accessible at any hour. The phone rings and Reddy is engaged in a long conversation on how indelible ink, that is used to mark voters' fingers, will have to be airlifted to Bhopal from Mysore, the only place in the country that produces this special ink.

Madhya Pradesh has just computerised -- at the cost of Rs 2.3 million -- its election process. Now there are computer links between the districts, the state government and the election office. "This will make the outflow of data, the counting process much faster," explains Vijayavargiya. "We will have faster results."

This time around, the state election commission will spend Rs 320 million on the Vidhan Sabha election. This does not include the costs of maintaining law and order. The bill for the last assembly poll, five years ago was fractionally less at Rs 280 million.

One reason for the increase in costs is the presence of voting machines, manufactured by ECIL, Hyderabad. These gadgets, priced at Rs 10,000 each, will be introduced in five constituencies this election -- 3 in Gwalior and 2 in Bhopal.

"There should be no difficulty in operating these machines. ECIL engineers will be there," say the election officers. The gismos will be introduced in 1,149 polling stations -- one for use and one as a back-up. The experiment, Vijayavargiya feels, is likely to be well received. Voting machines deter booth capturing, are environment-friendly and produce swift results. MP spends Rs 60 million on ballot paper alone.

Much of Reddy's and Vijayavargiya's efforts go in ensuring that the state's legion of voters have polling stations as close by as possible "Two kilometres is the norm," says Reddy.

Says Vijayavargiya, "a voter must not have to walk beyond 2 km. But in some rural areas where people are used to walking we increase this to 3 to 4 km." On this mission Reddy and Vijayavargiya have toured most of the districts and held meetings in 12 divisional headquarters. MP, however, possesses a remote area -- Abujhmad in Bastar -- where polling booths are 15 to 20 km apart.

A large map hangs on the wall of Vijayavargiya's office detailing the types of electoral constituencies -- constituencies prone to caste conflict, communal trouble, Naxalite interference or political rivalry. Says Reddy, "It is very difficult to say which the peaceful areas are. Anything can go wrong anytime, anywhere. Indore, for instance, is considered an area of communal disturbance. But Indore was very peaceful during the last Vidhan Sabha election."

Reddy was stationed at Chhindwara during the general election. In February 1998, Chhindwara was the venue for 'booth capturing' and intense political rivalry. Says Reddy, "Our job is to keep the process going. To see that justice is delivered and there are level playing fields. To see that life, property, candidates, voters are safe. The voters must feel secure. What is the use if the voters feel insecure and do not to want to leave their homes?"

Explains Vijayavargiya, "In Naxalite areas we have to make sure we deploy more police. Incidences of booth capturing is very low in Madhya Pradesh. But Bhind, Chhindwara, Chattarpur, Hoshangabad, Morena, Rewa, Satna have in the past registered strong cases of booth capturing."

Some of T N Seshan's electoral guidelines have made life easier for Vijayavargiya's officers. For instance, the number of candidates has come down due to more stringent qualifications for a candidate. This year, MP fields 2,510 candidates which is a healthy drop from the 3,729 candidates who ran in the last assembly election.

Resources are spent on ensuring fairplay in the voting process by bringing in a team of 80 observers from other states. Additionally, the election commission office despatches video teams to district headquarters to film, randomly, the election process.

Much of these measures evidently have shown results. Voter turnout increased to 61 per cent during the general election this year, from MP's earlier average of 54 per cent.

As large and complex as MP appears, when planning the logistics of an election, Vijayavargiya says, "it has become a routine exercise."

For Reddy, for whom coordinating an election from the headoffice of such a large state is a new responsibility, this election is very interesting. "It is challenging. It set the adrenalin flowing."

Assembly Election '98

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