ECI presides over a travesty of democracy, at best a paper tiger

How to murder a ‘free and fair’ process? The current Election Commission took a weak, inadequate system and destroyed it with brazen bias

Marked Index finger laid on prints of the Preamble to the Constitution (photo courtesy @bahudari/X)
Marked Index finger laid on prints of the Preamble to the Constitution (photo courtesy @bahudari/X)

Palanivel Thiagarajan

What does it mean, in practical terms, to run a free and fair election? Here are some essential prerequisites, in my view:

Accuracy: The conduct of elections must be 100 per cent accurate in enfranchising those who are constitutionally eligible and in holding back those who are not eligible.

Awareness: All citizens should have full information about each step of the voting process. They should be able to exercise their vote without any confusion.

Non-partisan environment: The election process and the media ecosystem should be neutral such that neither is content suppressed nor is anybody able to get away with untruths, let alone Nazi-level propaganda.

Reliability: The process should be transparent enough that multiple people can validate that it took place according to the rules and nothing untoward or illegal took place.

Equality of access: The system should not discriminate between candidates based on the size of their party or whether they run as an independent candidate. There should be no bar for any average citizen to fight an election.

The most desirable outcome would involve absolute integrity of polling, uncompromised security of devices, reliability of the counting and polling processes and devices that deliver a result consistent with the intent expressed by voters.

Such an outcome would inspire confidence that everyone has had a fair and equal opportunity to be a voter, that the party holding executive power has not had undue influence on or gains from the process, and that the system has delivered a result that truly reflects the will of the voters.


With roughly 960 million eligible voters and over 1.2 million polling booths, running a general election requires a few million booth officers, booth agents, observers and security personnel, nearly all of whom are pressed into temporary service, in roles completely unrelated to their regular roles.

The Election Commission today remains an understaffed paper tiger.

Although the electoral exercise requires millions of people, the Election Commission of India (ECI) runs on a skeleton staff of fewer than 500 full-time employees. This small group is supposed to project authority, manage the system and ensure compliance with all the rules.

A granular analysis of the current election model shows that the system is structurally unsound.

Over 99 per cent of the people who work in an election are conscripted from government or quasi-government jobs and national PSUs, including nationalised banks. These workers are not ideally suited for this additional duty. The level of training and functional support provided to them is grossly inadequate by any professional standard.

As an extreme example, reports have come in from Madhya Pradesh (Dainik Bhaskar) alleging that 20 government employees, including gardeners and drivers, were designated as polling officers. With no disrespect to the workers themselves, slipshod distribution of tasks and perfunctory training and support shows a callous disregard for the process.

How accurate are electoral rolls (voter lists)?


Based on the five elections I worked on, the voter lists are ‘off’ by up to 10 per cent in rural areas and by up to 15 per cent or more in urban areas. There has been no from-scratch census-equivalent voter registration drive in decades.

The fact that there is an annual collapsing and consequent renumbering means that people’s serial numbers in their booth list change constantly.

The National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP), launched by the ECI in 2015 with the objective of ‘bringing a totally error-free and authenticated electoral roll’, has been plagued by several problems.

Critics of the scheme suggested that the ECI was pressured into doing this not as an “end in itself, but as a preparatory step to pave the way for other ambitions of the government of the day such as simultaneous elections or one nation, one election”.

The decision to link the EPIC (Electors Photo Identification Card) number with Aadhaar was stayed by the Supreme Court in August 2015. Fears that such a linkage would be used to disenfranchise voters from marginalised communities cannot be dismissed. A radical purification of the electoral rolls cannot happen merely through an Aadhaar-based linkage, especially in a nation where there are tens of thousands of fake Aadhaar entries, including an Aadhaar card issued for Lord Hanuman.


Polling day and secure storage of EVMs


Under the current system, every candidate is permitted one main and one substitute agent at every booth to ensure that due process is followed, and the booth is not ‘captured’ by anyone.

These agents ensure that there is only one match on the list with the person voting, and that no voter is either denied a vote or coerced to vote for a particular candidate/ party (as happened in Manipur this election, compelling even the selectively blind ECI to call for repolling).

A minimum of 3,000 booth agents are needed to effectively manage polling day, and candidates without a party structure to back them may not be able to identify so many volunteers, let alone train them.

So, it is not a level playing field and the odds of an Independent candidate winning a Lok Sabha seat remain dismal. (Data suggests that 99 per cent of independents lost their deposits in the last election.)

I bring up this point to show that pre-polling processes like testing and validating EVMs, ensuring that nomination papers are in order, cross-referencing the various forms (Form 10, Form 17, Form 20) are all relatively new procedures for both the ECI’s temporary workers and party volunteers.

Process familiarity that can be reasonably expected from well-trained, long-term officers is visibly absent at every booth.

The most important form is Form 17 because it contains comprehensive information of what happened on polling day (total registered voters, total votes recorded in the EVM, whether this tallies, and so on).

As a crucial data point, Form 17 gives a polling station-wise breakdown of the number of votes. Form 17 can later be tallied against Form 20 (counted votes) and discrepancies alert us to undeniable rigging.

Today, we are watching a farce unfold: nearly six weeks after the first phase of polling, the ECI has not officially released the final polling figures. Its website and app do not show data on the number of voters in each constituency.


The proper conduct of elections is an existential feature of a functioning democracy. In the Constituent Assembly debates, there was even a proposal to consider the purity and independence of elections as a fundamental right.

In its previous avatars, the Election Commission enjoyed a certain level of respect in people’s minds, and arguably obtained a level of compliance and adherence from state and union governments. There was an aura of impartiality, which allowed people to sustain their faith in the system.

[Today], the integrity and process around EVMs... is still suspect, compounded by the ECI’s reluctance to reveal who manufactures the EVM components, what is the source code, and so on.

Investigating EVMs is like opening a can of worms: the issue of tampering, their storage in strongrooms being compromised, instances of EVMs being lost/ replaced, faulty EVMs that record two votes for the ruling party where only one vote has been polled and the refusal to tally VVPAT (voter-verifiable paper audit trail) receipts with EVMs are some of the issues.

What secures the election for a political party is ensuring that its counting agents are well prepared and adequately trained. Counting follows a different logic from polling, and only trained counting agents can perform their roles effectively.

For agents to function adequately, they must have the exact information in Form 17 related to each booth and its corresponding EVMs—including the identification number of the EVM, the total votes cast, etc.

It is the candidate’s task to provide its counting agents with all this data to ensure manipulation-free and error-free counting.

The votes (EVM and postal) secured by each candidate, which are reported by the returning officer on counting day, are aggregated and declared in Form 20, which is the official result of the election process.

The ECI’s decision to stop publishing Form 17 data (votes polled) is a despicable, unconscionable and unforgivable assault on the very notion of fair elections.

Without universal agreement on the polled numbers in each EVM (identified by its unique serial number), there is no way to ensure that votes counted match votes cast.

It is now up to each candidate to have their own teams collect Form 17 from each booth (copy known as 17C) and tally and redistribute by the 14-count ascendancy.

Only then can the counting agent ensure that the right EVM (matching serial number) has resulted in a total of counted votes that equals the total votes actually cast in that booth, that EVM on the day of polling.

Smaller parties and independent candidates are again at a disadvantage, given the scale and complexity [of the exercise] to check for accuracy and then protest in the case of any discrepancy.

Again, the potential for the party holding executive power to manipulate the counting process is very high.

In addition to these, there is one more avenue for smaller-scale manipulation.

Postal votes (and their potential for manipulation): In closely fought contests, where the margin of victory is slim, results are often manipulated through the counting of postal votes (as the nation saw in the recent Chandigarh mayoral election).

In one of the most egregious instances, the current BJP union minister, Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, won the Dholka MLA seat against Ashwin Rathod of the Congress by a slender margin of 327 votes after 429 postal votes were invalidated by returning officer Dhaval Jani, who had previously worked as an officer under Chudasama when he was revenue minister.

The ECI has mandated that the postal ballot papers be counted first, and that the EVM counting begin half an hour after the counting of postal votes begins.

However, this is not followed in many cases.

There is another structural lacuna. Once the returning officer at the counting centre issues the Certificate of Election (Form 22) to the successful candidate, the election can only be challenged in court, which can take years and can hence become infructuous.

Instances of seats being captured by issuing the certificate to a ruling party candidate, despite losing during the counting of votes, show how results can be manipulated even at the last second.

Election petitions: What happens to election petitions filed in court? Section 86(6) and 86(7) of the Representation of the People Act implores the high court to conduct the trial of an election petition every day until its conclusion (wherever practically possible), and mandates that the trial be concluded in six months.

However, given the judiciary’s lack of will and resources, several petitions end up becoming infructuous.

Fixing the electoral apparatus: The ECI in its present form is incompetent, inefficient and partisan.

An already weak electoral process has been further degraded by the partisan frenzy of the current election commissioners.

Staggering incompetence has resulted in an election over two-and-a-half months in the middle of an unprecedented heatwave.

The ECI is tasked with the regime’s idea of One Nation, One Election. How much more time, money and effort must go into making this process quasi-functional and robust enough to inspire confidence?

Some problems can be easily fixed were the ECI to invest in better technology, commit itself to accuracy, switch to 100 per cent real-time data reporting instead of random sampling, expand its skeletal workforce and train them adequately and start the process of data correlation from scratch.


Eighty years ago, while envisioning what the staff apparatus of the Election Commission should be, Dr Ambedkar said:

The question was whether the Electoral Commission should have the authority to have an independent staff of its own to carry on the work which has been entrusted to it.
It was felt that to allow the Election Commission to have an independent machinery to carry on all the work of the preparation of the electoral roll, the revision of the roll, the conduct of the elections and so on would be really duplicating the machinery and creating unnecessary administrative expense which could be easily avoided for the simple reason, as I have stated, that the work of the Electoral Commission may be at times heavy [while] at other times it may have no work.

Therefore, we have provided in clause (5) that it should be open for the Commission to borrow from the provincial governments such clerical and ministerial agency as may be necessary for the purposes of carrying out the functions with which the Commission has been entrusted. When the work is over, that ministerial staff will return to the provincial government.
During the time that it is working under the Electoral Commission, no doubt administratively it would be responsible to the Commission and not to the executive government.’

Dr Ambedkar’s concerns about additional expenditure and the duplication of administrative machinery were in tune with the limitations of a new nation.

In the first general election, the average number of voters in a parliamentary constituency was around 4 lakh; now it is upwards of 1.5 million.

More than 1 million booths cater to 969 million voters.

Also, elections now happen on a three-tier plan (Parliament, state assemblies, local bodies), around the year.

Complaints mechanism and a partisan ECI

Parties often complain of ECI bias at every stage—monitoring political advertisements and spending, acting against complaints, allotting symbols, etc. (I faced this first hand when running statewide advertising campaigns when the DMK was in the opposition.)

Recently, the ECI banned the AAP’s official campaign song on the pretext that it showed the ‘ruling party and its agencies in poor light’.

On the other hand, the ECI turned a blind eye when the BJP ran explicit dog-whistling campaigns targeting the Muslim community or when it spread canards about the Congress manifesto.

When complaints were made to the ECI about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign speech in Rajasthan that created the false impression that people’s hard-earned money and women’s mangalsutras would be taken away in the name of wealth redistribution and given to ‘infiltrators’ and ‘those who have more children’, the ECI chose to send a notice—not to Modi but to the BJP chief J.P. Nadda.

Prime Minister Modi visited the Ram temple on the eve of the third phas—revealing both his desperation and his disregard for the Model Code of Conduct.

It is worth recalling that the Liberhan Ayodhya Commission of Inquiry recommended to the ECI that ‘attempts to misuse religious sentiments, or to appeal to voters through the mode of their piety, whether by holding thinly disguised electoral rallies in places of worship, or posing as political supplications to God must result in swift action and possible disqualifications’.

Today we have the exact inverse—a ruling party running for its third term on the plank of the Ram temple, regular hate speech and communal rabble-rousing by the prime minister and an Election Commission that is a silent spectator.

We have not invested enough attention, importance, money or time in the electoral process that forms the bedrock of a functional democracy.

The notion of ‘One Nation, One Election’ is not only a constitutional travesty, given the current asynchronous terms of various state and union governments and local bodies, it is also a quixotic fantasy, given the gross inadequacies in the current election model, as detailed above.

The three current election commissioners have taken a weak, inadequate system and murdered it with their shameless bias.

They have brazenly allowed the explicit targeting of Muslims (Ajmer, 6 April; Nawada, 7 April; Pilibhit, 9 April; Banswara , 29 April), turned a blind eye to the sops announced by the Centre after the Model Code of Conduct came into force and remained unperturbed by the hijacking of democratic processes in Surat, Indore and Gandhinagar.

The final voting percentages, released 11 days after polling, show an inflation of approximately 5.5 per cent for the first phase and 5.7 per cent for the second phase—these are deeply suspicious figures.

That is why I say that the functioning of this ECI marks the absolute nadir of India’s hard-won democracy.

PALANIVEL THIAGARAJAN is minister of information technology and digital services, Tamil Nadu. A longer version of this essay first appeared in Frontline magazine

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