Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics is doing a research project with the State Election Commission on Maharashtra. The idea is to create some academic understanding of the dynamics of local elections that happen under the Panchayati Raj Institutions. Given my political economy leanings, I have been working on this closely. The entire team has been on it, reading, researching, talking to stake holders, meeting with political scientists. We are yet to go on field though, for the survey.
So when we received a call from the Election Commission for a meeting in Mumbai, the agenda of which was to finalize the survey proceedings, I was really excited. Excited, that finally the survey can start. My experience so far tells me that 2 days on the field are worth 2 weeks spent in literature review; any survey is a huge growth curve for any economist and I came home from work, happy and excited.
Lil One met me at the door with a worried face. “It’s unit tests next week. And I have English and Civics on Monday,” he declared, glum at the prospect of studying over the weekend. I stared at him in horror. “Monday?”I said. “I have to go to Mumbai on Monday!”
“Mom, please teach me Civics over the weekend. I hate it and I really don’t understand it!”
Gawd! Ohk, so I browsed through his textbook and was amused to find that he was to write an exam on Democracy and Elections on Monday, the same day when I was to meet the Election Commissioner.
“Okay, fill in the blanks,” I said in a crisp teaching tone. “Holding ……and …….. elections in India is a corner stone of Indian democracy.”
“Ummm….political and five-yearly?”
Startled, I said with gritted teeth, “Free and fair. We need free elections; anyone can contest and any citizen can vote. Also, they should be fair. Your teacher is definitely going to ask this in fill in the blanks. Free and fair, okay?”
Lil One said, “Okay, chill! I don’t understand why that RIT helps in controlling corruption.”
“Okay, firstly, that’s RTI. Right to Information. So if we pay taxes for building a road and the road is built poorly, then I have a right to information. I can ask our corporator which company constructed this road. Why did you give my tax money to people who are not experts in construction? Why was my tax money wasted on this excuse for a road?” I said, my voice steadily climbing as I glared at a cupboard, imagining it to be our corporator.
Lil One was impressed. “Did you really ask him that?”
God! Corporator vanished, leaving behind the wooden cupboard and me, with an equally wooden expression. “I am only giving you an example. I didn’t ask him, but I can. And the fact that people can, scares corporators into behaving.”
We ploughed through the election process over the weekend, both of us preparing for our respective tests on Monday.
Monday arrived. I left early morning for Mumbai, before Lil One was up. At 7:30 a.m. my phone rang. It was Lil One. “I have to go to school in 5 minutes. I just saw this one and I don’t know the answer. Answer in one sentence. What are the roles and duties of the Election Commission?” he wailed into the phone.
“Ask Dad,” I was tempted to yell back from my end. Control!
“Ok, that’s simple, right? Holding free and fair elections every 5 years is the duty of the Election Commission!”
“Oh! Is that it? Brilliant! Thanks, Mom! You are the best!” Lil One hung up happily to climb into his school bus on time, courtesy Hubby, who can be tough competition to any politician in making promises he cannot deliver on, but seemed to have done his bit Monday morning.
Well, at the State Election Commission’s office, we ploughed through and struggled through the details of the survey. Which talukas, how many districts to be surveyed. We argued about the type of methodology that would be followed; these arguments and detailing with the client often helps us to fine tune our research proposals.
Finally, once we had sufficiently detailed the proposal, it was time to meet with the Commissioner to report the latest and take his comments too on the upcoming survey work.
The Commissioner, as always, was very positive. “I have only two major instructions to give as you begin the field work,” he said.
“The first is that we want to be involved into this work on a daily basis. So please stay in touch with our team here. If some Government officials refuse to co-operate, just call us and it will be handled.”
“Secondly and most importantly, there are laws that create the framework for Panchayati elections. But sometimes, the law is silent on things. That is where I have to frame rules or pass administrative orders so that proper action can be taken. If you come across any such instance, I want to know directly about it.”
He could read from our faces that the second point had not been understood properly.
“Let me give you an example. There is a law that states that every candidate must do asset declaration at the time of filing nomination papers. We later extended this to 6 months. So an elected Panchayat member has to file his papers within 6 months of getting elected. This is what the law says. The law tells us what should or what ought to happen. But there was an instance in which this gentleman refused to submit the documents even after 6 months. Now can he be removed from his position? The law is silent. It is here that the role of the Election Commission is important. I cannot create laws; that is a function of the Government. But if a law is silent on something harming the spirit of democracy and elections, the Commission has been given powers to pass an administrative order and the Government HAS to obey it.”
“There’s another interesting example. According to the Panchayat Act, every member filing nomination has to have a toilet in his home and has to be a user of the facility. Only the Gram Sabha can give verification of this. However, there is a village where the Gram Sabha did not meet at all before the election! So who verifies this fact? The law is again silent on what to do if the Gram Sabha does not meet. So we passed an order mandating that Gram Sabhas meet before elections.”
“So, the Election Commission’s role stretches into anything that helps the process of democracy along.” We sat there, taking notes, listening carefully, appreciating the wisdom that higher Government officials have.
And then the Commissioner said something that jerked me out completely from my quiet thought zone. “My role is not to hold just elections,” he suddenly said aggressively.
“WHAT?” I thought, thinking madly about the survey, economics, research methodology, toilet blocks, Gram Sabhas and incredibly, Lil One, all at the same time.
Looking at my disturbed countenance, he said with a serious tone, “My role is to hold free and fair elections in this state. And hold it, I will. Whatever it takes, will be done.”
I smiled quietly at the way he emphasized the words to me, pretty much like I had emphasized them to Lil One over the weekend. My mind was buzzing. What an incredibly complicated role the Commission plays, I was thinking.
After the meeting was over, I told him that Lil One is studying the role of the Election Commission, but doesn’t quite believe that I know the Commissioner. Would the Commissioner agree to a photograph?
The entire Commission broke into laughter and joined me for a wonderful photo-shoot post-meeting.
I left for Pune in the afternoon. My mind was still mulling over the things I’d learnt in the morning. The processes, the laws, the Government creating laws to create a Commission, which can then create machinery that controls the Government.
How does one put into one simple sentence all of the machinery that these folks have created and upheld in order to protect the election processes in Maharashtra, and in India too? Just then, my cell phone buzzed. It was Lil One, back from school.
“I am getting full marks in Civics, Mom. They had asked us such simple things in the paper,” he said pompously. “Answer in one sentence. What are the duties of the Election Commission? Hmph. So simple.”
“What did you write?” I squawked suddenly into the phone, conscious that this is one thing that cannot possibly be put into one sentence.
“I wrote that holding free and fair elections in India to uphold the true spirit of democracy is the duty of the Election Commission. Correct, Ma?”
Full points on that one. Even the Commissioner would agree.
The photograph on the blog is the one post-meeting. From R to L, that’s Deepak Negi from Association for Democratic Reforms, Hemant Wasekar from Yashada, Mr. Saharia, State Election Commissioner, me representing the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Mr. Pradeep Vyas, Secretary, Election Commission, Ms. Chaitra Redkar from SNDT, Mr. Surya Krishnamurty, Assistant Commissioner and Sanjay Patil, Political Science Department, Mumbai University.