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India sees its least violent elections

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

Attributed to use of EVMs and judicious use of paramilitary and police forces.

The curtain has come down on the 2009 Lok Sabha elections which is considered the least violent in recent times. While over 20 people were killed in election-related violence this time, the figure was 48 in the 2004 general elections, and nearly 100 in 1999.

Provisional figures available with the Election Commission (EC) suggest that levels of repolling — directly related to election violence — have also reduced with 648 polling stations across the country had repolls/adjourned polls of which 117 booths were in Manipur alone.

EC officials attribute low levels of violence to two factors: the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs); and the judicious use of paramilitary and police forces to enable the conduct of the elections.

Officials conceded that when they planned the elections, spread over five phases during India’s hottest months, they asked themselves if security was more important or turnout. It is acknowledged that the heat kept people indoors and kept the turnout percentage low.

But they were clear that no voter’s right to franchise should be abridged in any way by compromising on security. “Election-related violence has almost always been connected to attempts to rig the election. With EVMs, this is virtually impossible. So not only is rigging down, so is violence,” an EC official said.

“The process of carrying the ballot boxes from the site of voting to the counting centre, booth capturing, impersonation, fudging voting… all this could happen so long as voting was done manually. Now it is impossible to capture a booth or impersonate,” he said. In fact, 2004 was the first election conducted entirely through EVMs.

How much the EVMs have changed the way elections are conducted in India can be judged by what used to happen during elections earlier. The 1989 elections saw riots among Hindus and Muslims taking place in Jaipur for the first time. This happened because voting was manually conducted and ballot papers were not brought from the polling centres and mixed. When the 1989 Lok Sabha results were out, it became clear from the pattern of voting that the Muslim areas had voted against the BJP MP from Jaipur, Girdhari Lal Bhargava. An angry mob set fire to Muslim-dominated areas during a victory rally taken out by Bhargava’s supporters. Following this incident, ballot papers were always mixed before they were counted, so that polling agents would not know in which booth who voted how.

A former Congressman, now on the periphery of active power politics, told Business Standard how elections used to be rigged prior to the EVM era. “Trucks full of ballot papers would take boxes to the counting stations. En route, all an enterprising candidate had to do was keep a few trucks with stamped ballot papers ready — and just switch the trucks,” he explained.

“Today, this cannot happen. Yes, there have been reports of EVMs malfunctioning. That is because the wires might not have been connected correctly or because of some other technical error. But you cannot stuff EVMs with preprogrammed votes,” said an EC official.

Significantly, this time no constituency saw the election being countermanded — which happens if a candidate dies or there is unacceptable levels of violence during the poll. A candidate from the Indian Justice Party did die in Uttar Pradesh but as the party is not recognised by the EC, the election went on as scheduled.

First Published: Fri, May 15 2009. 00:56 IST