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Daily Take: India flexes electoral muscles

April 21, 2004 03:10 IST
Last Updated: April 21, 2004 03:57 IST

The world's biggest electoral exercise finally got underway on Tuesday, April 20.

Nearly 55 per cent of an estimated 17.5 crore voters spread over 140 Lok Sabha constituencies across 13 states and three Union Territories turned up at thousands ofpolling booths to exercise their constitutional right to choose their government.

Of course the turnout was not uniform everywhere, and ranged from a low of 35 per cent in parts of Jammu and Kashmir to as high as 70 per cent in the tiny Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Naxalite threats in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh failed to deter voters,with as many as 65 per cent coming to the booths to make their choices.

On the other hand, though Baramulla constituency in Jammu and Kashmir recorded a low overall turnout of 35 per cent, the figure becomes impressive when seen against the backdrop of terrorist violence and separatist calls to boycott the election. The criminals carried out as many as two dozen attacks throughout the constituency, killing three persons and injuring a dozen others.

Even in the Jammu and Kashmir assembly election in September 2002, Baramulla district had recorded a turnout of 40.08 per cent, while Kupwara district had recorded 53.15 per cent, for a total constituency turnout of roughly 45 per cent. If anything, it is obvious that even terrorist threats are not having as much of an impact now as they used to a decade ago, when turnout would be 10 per cent or less.

It may be the biggest electoral exercise in the world, but it's far from perfect.

As usual there were several complaints of voters not finding their names in the list and thus being deprived of the right to franchise, or of violence, attempts to capture booths, and attacks on candidates in different states.

But possibly one of the more striking cases was that of the electoral list in Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh. Leave aside common people, even a former chief minister, N Bhaskara Rao, found his name missing from the list and had to return disappointed from the polling station.

Bhaskara Rao, a resident of the upmarket Jubilee Hills area in Hyderabad, was furious. "When I went to cast my vote, I was told that my name is not there in the voters list. What can you call this? A hi-tech fraud?"

Bhaskara Rao was, of course, referring sarcastically to the Election Commission's proud claim of conducting the country's first fully electronic general election, with no ballot papers in use in any constituency.

Of course, Bhaskara Rao was not the only bigwig to suffer. Veteran Telugu film actor K Satyanarayana also went all the way to the polling booth only to find that his name was no longer in the voters' list.

There were reports of angry crowds staging protest demonstrations near polling booths in Visakhapatnam, Nalgonda, Karimnagar and Ranga Reddy districts. "We spent Rs 300 to come here to cast our votes," complained a voter in Karimnagar district, whose entire family had to go back without voting. "But we were denied the opportunity on the ground that our names are not in the list. Though we produced photo-identity cards, it was of no use."

In the midst of all this imperfection, it was amusing to see the electoral authorities' steadfast adherence to rules in selected instances. We are referring here to the 'secrecy' of the ballot.

Who do you think a prominent Union minister who is also contesting the election will vote for?

Obviously, he will vote for himself. Any child will tell you that.

But the election authorities in Patna, Bihar, were far more fastidious than that. So, they cancelled the vote of Union Minister for the Northeast and Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from PatnaC P Thakur's vote on the ground of breach of secrecy.

Apparently, Thakur's wife and a few supporters were standing by his side when he pressed a button on the electronic voting machine to cast his vote. According to the election rules, the voter should be all alone in the voting enclosure while casting his vote unless he is infirm.

The BJP has now demanded cancellation of the vote of Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi on the same ground. One of her daughters was with her when she cast her vote.

Of course, when faced with this demand, the Bihar election authorities were suddenly not so fastidious anymore. Until late at night, they had taken no decision in the matter.

Of course, even if they do decide to cancel the vote now, how will they trace Rabri Devi's vote? It's a different matter that any child will tell you that she must have voted for the Rashtriya Janata Dal candidate.

Come the polls and out come the pollsters too.

Yes, we are referring to the breed that goes by the rather complicated name, psephologists.

Hardly had all the votes cast in the first phase of the election been safely locked away than they were on all the television news channels, making their own predictions, based on 'exit polls', of who was likely to win how many seats.

What makes the exercise interesting is the variation in the predictions by different pollsters. To paraphrase a popular saying in Hindi, there seem to be as many predictions as there are TV channels.

Just as an example, NDTV India claimed that its poll showed a 3 per cent swing in Bihar in favour of the RJD-Congress-Lok Jan Shakti Party combine and a corresponding swing away from the National Democratic Alliance.

AajTak's exit poll, however, showed just the opposite a 3 per cent swing away from the RJD-Congress-LJSP combine and a 1 per cent swing in favour of the NDA!

Naturally, their seat predictions also differed quite dramatically.

Of course, in some other cases the predictions matched as well. So it's quite hard to say who is right and who is wrong.

The politicians, of course, take the easy way out. They believe the predictions that say their respective parties will win, and rubbish those that say they will lose.

That, of course, will last only till the results from the big daddy of all opinion polls the 'real thing' are collated. Then they will go on to analyse the caste factors and other sundry imponderables that brought about that result.

Never mind whether anyone learns anything from all this jaw-jaw; it certainly makes for entertaining television.

Earlier Takes:
Against the popular will
Rajni has spoken

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