Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora, along with Election Commissioners Ashok Lavasa and Sushil Chandra, in New Delhi, Sunday, March 10, 2019. (Photographer: Subhav Shukla/PTI)

Elections 2019: Why Election Commission Chose The Schedule It Has

BloombergQuintOpinion

The dates are finally out for the 2019 General Elections, the biggest in world history. The Election Commission of India’s press conference threw up some mind-boggling numbers. There would be 90 crore registered voters, 10 lakh polling stations, 23.3 lakh ballot units, 16.3 lakh control units, and 17.4 lakh VVPATs!

Approximately 1.1 crore polling staff will be deployed. Over ten dozen trains with 3,000 coaches, 2,00,000 buses and cars, boats, elephants and camels will be used as means of transportation. On top of all that, thousands of polling parties will be walking 2-3 days to otherwise inaccessible areas in order to ensure “no voter is left behind”. And all this with clockwork precision.

It needs to be stressed that scheduling of this magnitude is no simple task. A number of factors come into play, with the convenience of the voters at the centre. For example, the month of March is unsuitable due to school examinations. This is also because lakhs of schools and teachers are on election duty. Add to that a long list of other considerations such as agricultural cycles, weather conditions, social and religious festivities, law and order situation etc.

Ever since the announcement was made, many questions have been raised in the media and the political establishment.

Aspersions have been cast on the EC’s neutrality in determining the dates and the phases. So let me attempt to answer.
CEC Sunil Arora, along with ECs Ashok Lavasa and Sushil Chandra, in New Delhi, Sunday, March 10, 2019. (Photographer: Subhav Shukla/PTI)
CEC Sunil Arora, along with ECs Ashok Lavasa and Sushil Chandra, in New Delhi, Sunday, March 10, 2019. (Photographer: Subhav Shukla/PTI)

Also read: Lok Sabha Election 2019 Schedule: 7-Phase Polls To Begin On April 11, Counting On May 23

Why A Multi-Phase Election?

Firstly, about the staggered polls. The reason for a staggered schedule is only one – preventing the loss of lives. Pre-poll and poll day violence used to take a toll of hundreds of lives. This was prompted with the deployment of paramilitary forces which now every political party demands. I remember the Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar demanding deployment of these forces in the 2010 Bihar assembly elections even if 10 phases were required! This was nothing short of expressing a lack of trust in his own state police!

So who really stands to benefit from a stretched-out schedule? No one, and everyone. Free, fair and bloodless elections are a collective concern. However, in this age of electronic and social media, there are negative effects, too, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives. This is a trade-off for peaceful, bloodless and rigging- free elections.

If we had enough paramilitary forces, EC would have happily done all elections in a single day.
Security personnel stand guard as people wait in queues to cast their votes in Chhattisgarh, on Nov. 12, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Security personnel stand guard as people wait in queues to cast their votes in Chhattisgarh, on Nov. 12, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

I, for one, have been suggesting that the government should consider raising many more battalions which makes a lot of sense as it would strengthen our security which is under ever-increasing threats. That would serve another purpose – the creation of much-needed employment.

The second question raised is why have four phases in Odisha which used to have a two-phase election? After all, some Naxalism affected states such as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are conducting polls in a single phase. This requires full knowledge of facts which only the commission has. The security assessment is the sole prerogative of the district magistrate and superintendent of police. They would have shared that with the EC. As for anyone’s political motives, I can’t really visualise what they could be.

Why four phases in Maharashtra, even though it is the best-governed state in the country? We cannot simply ignore the fact that it has a Maoist belt which has witnessed brutal violence in the past, and hence that is a valid concern for the commission. In any case, if there have been three phases in the past, a fourth is not unnatural.

Thirdly, why are state elections in Jammu and Kashmir not being conducted simultaneously like in Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim, and Odisha? I heard the commission’s press conference. They mentioned law and order. Questions are being raised, with some justification, that if the situation is conducive to Lok Sabha elections, why not simultaneous elections which is so dear to our leadership? What I could make of CEC’s explanation is that a lot more security is required for Vidhan Sabha elections, which is quite true.

This is because the number of candidates for the J&K Vidhan Sabha would be 8-10 times more whose personal security and of their homes and offices has to be ensured. 

It’s a common experience that elections to that tier are a lot more aggressive.

A security personnel stands guard as people wait in queues to cast their votes at a polling station during elections in Jammu, on Aug. 8, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
A security personnel stands guard as people wait in queues to cast their votes at a polling station during elections in Jammu, on Aug. 8, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Also read: Who Has An Edge In 2019 Elections? 

The Choice Of States In Each Phase

There are other questions being raised on the phases of polling in other states, such as pushing Delhi, Haryana, and Punjab to later phases. Uttarakhand is going to polls in the first phase while Himachal is going to polls in the last phase. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter either way.

Normally, areas that require more security are taken up first so that security forces could be available for area domination for longer periods.

An effort is always to make do with minimum movement. For instance, security forces of Uttarakhand can be moved easily to adjoining Uttar Pradesh and of Punjab and Haryana to Himachal Pradesh.

When The Model Code Kicks In

The most damning insinuation was that EC acted under government pressure to delay the dates to accommodate Prime Minister’s announcements of sops. The commission has denied any pressure. But the government should also be conscious about not harming the image of the commission by stretching these announcements to the last minute when the election schedule is not a matter of astrology or rocket science.

The speculations shall continue and they are far from a novelty. It has also gone to ridiculous extremes in the past and EC is no newcomer to it. Way back in February 2009, while I was making a public presentation at the India House in London about the recently-concluded 2008 Jammu & Kashmir elections, I became a victim of it. As the 2009 elections were just around the corner, a journalist asked me how the EC fixes election dates, and I responded with a long list of considerations outlined in the beginning. It was clear that the window available was between April 7 and the end of May. I was quoted as saying that “even though EC hasn’t discussed the dates, it will be between April 7 and May 15.”

All hell broke loose! Many leaders commented that the poll dates were being announced from London. The controversy only subsided after our High Commissioner issued a denial.

SY Quraishi is former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder – the Making of the Great Indian Election’.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.