Smashing democracy’s licence permit raj

Fixers aka political managers abound because they thrive in an artificially scare economy where votes are a premium. e-Voting will make the political world flat

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | October 27, 2011



The equations of electoral arithmetic can confound even the most profound of mathematical geniuses. Numbers are the bedrock of any exact science and there is no science as precise as mathematics. That is till it mingles with the rough and tumble of the dust bowls of heartland politics. Then blurriness replaces precision, numbers throw up unexpected combinations and bizarre marriages get pulled out of the hat at the last second. That’s Indian electoral politics in a nutshell.

The Indian politician is a spotlight grabber. Sometimes he grabs it and sometimes it grabs him. He loves and hates it in equal measure. But behind the ire and the occasional kudos that you direct at a politician is usually a man who is the equivalent of your local mechanic keeping your faithful old jalopy running. Even if it sputters half the time and spews out toxic smoke the other. That man is mostly anonymous, usually hidden and has an amazing capacity to transform one plus one into anything but two. He knows the nuts from the bolts of the electoral system and keeps it running. English-speaking elite know this man by his polite name, political manager.

The triumvirate of Bijli-Sadak-Pani has been the staple diet of every single election at every level in post-independent India. Take water. Santosh Singh Yadav was born in an ordinary farming family in Saifai village of Etawah. Just like his Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav. While I was covering the 2002 Uttar Pradesh elections (http://www.rediff.com/election/swami.htm), Yadav had given me a hardnosed lesson on electoral arithmetic. “I flitted in and out of almost all parties of Uttar Pradesh till I was handpicked by Netaji,” he said. “I became a trusted political worker and really wanted to do something for people who did not have drinking water.” What Tweedledum is to Tweedledee, hand-pumps is to the politics of Uttar Pradesh.

The quota of hand-pumps allocated by central and the state governments is usually not sufficient. The shortfall is addressed by the public sector units (PSUs), mostly oil, petro-giants and agro-companies, which donate hand-pumps as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. How hand-pump allocations from PSUs are managed is a political thriller in itself. Yadav’s initial impetus was to funnel the allocated hand-pumps to villages, households and families that were really in need of water. He was, however, quickly made to realise that every hand-pump was not just an anodised piece of metal and moving parts pumping out water. It was an instrument of power and control. Only two factors mattered – caste and religion. Every other factor from location, needy households to groundwater levels, quality of water was secondary.

“One hand-pump installed just 10 metres away from a village pradhan’s house can cost you anywhere between 1,000-1,500 votes,” said Yadav. One hand-pump plus 10 metres equals a loss of 1,500 votes. It’s a calculation which only practitioners of Indian electoral arithmetic can understand. In his own way, Yadav had cocked a snook at armchair academics and policy-makers building fanciful models using inscrutable concepts in rarefied air-conditioned environs of plush conference rooms about Indian democratic system and its ethos.

People like Yadav don’t get paid. It’s difficult for paid professionals swiping their cards and logging their hours and minutes to understand how the Santosh Yadavs of the world survive and prosper. For Yadav, installing a hand-pump, just like getting an electricity connection or arranging a NREGA job card or an old-age pension, is an instrument of exercising power over a group of people. Yadav inhabits a unique space. He is located in the intersection of a centuries-old caste relationship and a modern bond of convenience. This unique location makes Yadav a powerful person, especially when electoral arithmetic comes into play.

Electoral battles play out like a Lord of the Rings movie. Some are big, some are small but all are hard-fought. When the bugle sounds for a battle of the ballots, the Santosh Yadavs of the world congregate with their groups, almost like armies. Every single vote has a price. But fealty doesn’t come cheap. “I also need to earn money to survive. Sometimes leaders give me money, but other times I am asked to choose the contractors for projects,” he said. “Woh char paise banayenge toh humme do milega (If they make money only then will I get some for myself).” Yadav, of course, has his own set of people who are his eyes and ears at the ground level to take care of. None of them are formally paid. “They also need to keep their kitchen fires burning,” he said. “They look up to me and I have to provide for them.” Just as Yadav is provided for and looked after by his warlords. 

Electoral battles are not so much about how many people are willing to fight for you and push you to the coveted chair. Often it’s more about how many people are kept out of the battle. More often than not, caste and religious groups, which are traditionally opposed to a particular leader in power, are kept out of the ‘loop’ by deliberately destroying access to resources. “After elections we know which wards and blocks have not voted for us. Sometimes electricity transformers are sabotaged and at other times the roads are dug up,” said Yadav. But often a more polished approach is taken. “Access to resources is provided if the ‘recalcitrant ward or block’ shows a ‘willingness’ to toe the new line,” said Yadav.

One cannot take the trees for the forest here. Yadav is a tree in a forest. The forest is a loose and fluid pyramid with every single smaller warlord being looked after by another bigger warlord till at the very top sits, often precariously, a group of warlords. Or in a rare case one single powerful warlord. Mayawati is an example of a single powerful warlord. Of course, the warlords fight with each other, often trumping one another and changing their relative positions. But the framework remains unchanged. This structure is greased liberally by money and favours. It’s precisely this structure that all Indians are part of. Some of us participate enthusiastically, singing songs naively about the resilience of Indian democracy, and others grudgingly, sniffing suspiciously at the fishiness of it all. But a large portion of us are systematically kept out. Of course, the self-absorbed middle class is not even bothered enough to be a part of it.

A couple of months ago, almost a decade later, I bumped into Santosh Singh Yadav in the byzantine maze of Delhi’s power corridors. His rough edges were gone and he had moved up the pyramid. “I now provide personal security for top leaders,” he proudly proclaimed. It was a thinly veiled euphemism for muscle power. Yadav had become a bigger warlord and was selling his wares in Delhi. His career progression from hand-pumps to pumped-up bodies is another thriller waiting to be told.

Anna Hazare wants to clean up the proverbial Augean stables. So do Sonia Gandhi and her National Advisory Council (NAC). Chief election commissioner (CEC) Shahabuddin Yakub Quraishi is also making the right noises. And so is Rahul Gandhi. All are looking to add more bite to the laws. A stronger legislative framework is necessary and welcome, but will it eliminate Santosh Singh Yadav and his fellow warlords? Will stronger laws with beefier muscles destroy the pyramid? By itself, unlikely.

Why do political managers exist? Why do we, the voters, need to be managed? What is there to be managed? Isn’t democracy an exercise of independent choice? The answer is simple. We just don’t vote enough. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) says that on an average just 46% of us have voted in all state and general elections conducted since independence. Such low voting percentage combined with the first-past-the-post principle subverts and destroys the very essence of democracy. The pyramid likes this system. It thrives on the artificial scarcity of votes. It wants the voting percentages to be lesser so that voters can be ‘managed’. Think of it as the licence-permit raj of Indian democracy.

A small and a revolutionary experiment conducted in Gujarat, however, is the key to destroy this pyramid. K C Kapoor, election commissioner of Gujarat, wanted to find ways to encourage people to vote more. His answer was technology. E-voting, he decided, was the way forward. Thankfully he had some precedents to follow – Estonia where e-voting has been the norm since 2005, the London municipal polls and the European parliament. After the usual government processes of task forces and tenders, Gujarat Informatics Ltd came in as advisors, Tata Consultancy Services was given charge of software solutions and Indusface was tasked with architecting the four pillars of security – authentication, availability, confidentiality and integrity.

The system architecture is similar to an online financial transaction framework. Any person whose name appears on the voters list has the capability to e-vote. He must then register with the state election commission, filling out an online form with personal details, mobile phone number and details of the personal computer/laptop that he will use to cast his vote. The voter is then sent a registration identity and temporary password via email and SMS. He must activate his identity within seven days of the alert. To prevent duplication of votes or bogus voting, the commission sends a new password on polling day. With this, the voter can log on to the site and cast his vote.

On October 10, 2010, the first e-votes were cast in the civic elections in Surat, Vadodara, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar, Rajkot and Ahmedabad. The results were disappointing – of the 86.1 lakh registered voters, just 183 had e-voted. But Kapoor did not lose heart. He decided to implement e-voting in a big way in the April 2011 elections to the Gandhinagar municipal corporation. The six months between the two elections were used to smoothen out the glitches. E-voting was a hit. Of 670 registered voters (out of the total eligible voters), almost 500, or close to 74 percent, chose to e-vote.    

The Gujarat experiment shows just the tip of the iceberg. Today financial services are available over a variety of wireless devices. Encryption technologies are getting more advanced and cheaper by the day. Authentication mechanisms are moving away from just software solutions to include hardware integration. Biometric parameters from fingerprint recognition to iris identification are being integrated with lower-end laptops. Touch-screens are increasingly becoming icon and symbol driven. It’s this eco-system that we need to tap to ensure that every single Indian votes.

It’s possible today to free voting from its physical constraints. It’s possible for people to vote without fear or favour from the privacy of their mobile phones. It’s possible for people to vote using an IVRS system. It’s possible for people to vote from kiosks, just as easily as they get their recharge coupons. E-voting needs to be extended to mobile phones, touch-screen PDAs, IVRS, cyber-cafes, panchayat broadband networks and even to kiosks. If RBI can roll out a banking correspondent model, with complete confidence in the integrity of the system as it involves money, a similar voting correspondent model can be rolled out too. It’s possible.

It’s this possibility that shakes the very foundations of the pyramid. It’s this possibility that the warlords do not even want to think about. It’s when this possibility becomes a reality that Santosh Singh Yadav and the warlords will cease to exist. 

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