On men who man the poll booths

There’s no doubt the police and paramilitary personnel are the unsung heroes of elections but can they be used better?

shivani

Shivani Chaturvedi | May 13, 2014



If the general election that got over on Monday (May 12) has to be described in a word, that word has to be ‘watershed’. After all, this, as statistics show, is the election that drew out the most number of people – 55.1 crore, or 66.38 percent of the country’s 83.1-crore electorate.

The respective highs before this were 41.7 crore in 2009 – when the Manmohan Singh government returned for a second term – and 64 percent in 1984, when Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

This was also the election where the youth and the otherwise nonchalant urban swellers came out in numbers to vote. But more than anything elese, it was the discourse that had changed for nearly two months, with people talking and discussing polls, politics and parties like never before – all great signs for a thriving democracy.

And then there were the security personnel – the ubiquitous but unsung heroes. According to reports, besides the police, over 2 lakh paramilitary personnel, thousands of vehicles and nearly a dozen helicopters were deployed on poll duty across the country for the nine-phase election that began on April 7.

Like first-time voter Malvika exclaimed, “So big is the presence of police and paramilitary personnel at polling booths on voting days that it looks more like a war than election!”

It was said in jest, of course, and the young voter had all respect for the men and women in uniform who kept it peaceful and fair. But the comment still had food for thought.

In fact, in his latest book ‘An Undocumented Wonder’, former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi has, in one of the chapters, compared election with war time. “When 119 special trains with 3,060 coaches speedily roll out, transporting millions of paramilitary, police and security forces, and dozens of helicopters join the operation performing hundreds of sorties, and eleven million people criss-cross from border to border, anyone would assume that India is at war. Yes, from outside it indeed looks like all-out war but the difference is that this war is waged in peace time by the people themselves, not against an enemy but for the preservation of democracy in a country with 1,163 million citizens and 783 million voters above the age of eighteen years.”

At the launch of Quraishi’s book on May 10 in Chennai, former bureaucrat MG Devasahayam also raised concern over this massive deployment of police and paramilitary forces. “There was a time when a single booth was manned by two constables with lathis to keep a check on practices like booth capturing. Of course mobile policing was there but this time I saw 50 armed police personnel at one booth! Are we conducting elections?” he remarked.

While there were complaints of booth capturing from many areas in some states, it was even alleged that paramilitary forces were kept in reserve at some places and not deployed at sensitive booths. Instead, just state police were positioned at such booths, allegedly to facilitate booth capturing.

Intrigued, I spoke to an SSB (Sashastra Seema Bal) officer over phone. The officer was posted at Kishanganj, Bihar, for the last phase and had earlier been on election duty in several other states in the preceding eight phases.

So, what exactly do they do, I asked the paramilitary officer. “Our role is very limited,” he replied. “We do whatever the district administration asks of us. If we get any report of booth capturing or violence, we report to the district administration… yeh (electioneering) district administration ki zimmedari hai (it is the district administration’s responsibility).”

From all indications, the election commission has done a remarkable job in the just-concluded polls. But is that more food for thought – how to polish the process further by using the police and paramilitary personnel better?

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