Lessons From India’s Mammoth Election

India is famous for its film industry, Bollywood. It is the world’s biggest in the number of movies it produces annually. The movies have a huge global audience mainly because of the singing and intricately choreographed dancing they always feature. Also, they tell stories that hundreds of millions of people around the world can easily identify with.

But India is not all Bollywood and its let’s-make–you-happy entertaining movies. It is the world’s largest democracy. Every five years, it holds a general election for the 543-member national parliament, the Lok Sabha. One is currently ongoing and is scheduled to last for several weeks. The final results will be announced early in the fourth week of May.

The election always attracts global attention because of its enormity. The country’s landmass is vast and has many challenging terrains, from remote mountainous areas to islands that are not easily accessible. And for the current election, there are 900 million eligible voters. It is this mind-bending number and the huge spread of the country that make the election to be staggered. It is not designed to give some special advantage to one political party.

One major remit of the county’s National Elections Commission is to ensure that every eligible voter is enabled to cast his or her ballot. This is one feature that makes India’s election stand out and its democracy continuously evolve in a robust manner.

Every voter matters.  Every vote counts and is counted. This is amply demonstrated in many instances in many places in every general election. In the current election, a four-man team of electoral officials traveled for four days to Malogam, a remote village of five residents in the northern fringes of the country close to the Himalayan mountains – about 2,575 kilometers from New Delhi, the national capital. Only one of the five residents is registered to vote.

The electoral team got to the village at dusk on the eve of the polling day. The voter, Sokela Tayang, a 42-year-old woman, was not around. She had gone to another village, 201 kilometers away, to look after her sick mother. By 7 am, the team was ready for the election and waited for her to show up. She did at 8.30am. She was duly identified, her finger marked with indelible ink after which she entered the polling booth and voted. No ballot paper. She voted by pressing a button in an electronic voting machine that’s portable and battery-powered. And she was done with it in just a few minutes.

And here is another remarkable thing about the episode. Even though she was the only voter in the village and the electoral officials had completed all the necessary paperwork on her voting, they stayed there till the mandatory poll-closing time of 5 pm. That is what the electoral law requires, and they observed it to the letter.

India Election 2019
India Election 2019

India’s elections used to be notoriously flawed like Nigeria’s – marred by violence and all kinds of manipulations, including ballot box stuffing and snatching, disappearance of electoral officials and voting materials and cooking the figures to get a pre-determined outcome. Over several election cycles, the country has greatly improved its electoral system and enhanced the integrity of its elections. One of the measures adopted to achieve it was the elimination of ballot papers and the introduction of electronic voting.

Since it attained independence from Britain in 1947, India has embraced democracy and continues to deepen its roots. During the decades between the 1950s and 1980s when the rest of Asia, minus Japan, was under military dictatorship or autocratic rule, India was the exception. It stuck with its British democratic heritage, warts and all.

India has remained the beacon of hope and inspiration to all democratic tendencies throughout the Asian continent. It is only China that gets nervous whenever its equally giant neighbour holds its national election. Chinese leaders fear that the flowering of democracy in India, side by side with economic development, could trigger serious agitation for political change in the country.

For all its stupendous economic development in the last 40 years, China is marooned in a discredited and outdated communist ideological cul-de-sac. It stubbornly sticks to its one-party political system that doesn’t tolerate any form of dissent and challenge to the authority and un-moderated powers of the Communist Party of China. But the country is sitting on a political time bomb, as more economic prosperity will inevitably lead to the people demanding expansion of the political space and a change in the system of one-party rule.

Unlike India, Nigeria has ceased to be a beacon of hope and inspiration for the rest of Africa and the Black World generally. Instead, it has become the butt of embarrassing jokes and an object of scorn globally.

As Nigeria pretends to be a democracy, there are some few useful lessons to learn from India’s mammoth election. The integrity of the electoral process is sacrosanct. Without it, the outcome will be dubious. And so will the legitimacy of the mandate of the winner be. While India takes measures that ensure that every eligible voter gets the chance to vote and the vote counts, we do the exact opposite in order to win at all costs.

The 2019 general elections amplified the brokenness of our electoral system and the bankruptcy of the political class. And, of course, the sham independence of our National Electoral Commission. The toxic combination of the two makes for a clear and present danger to our fledgling democracy.

With the active participation of the military and other security agencies, voting was blatantly suppressed in so many places across the country. While the same security agents look the other way, party thugs had a free day, attacking people as they waited to vote, snatching and burning ballot boxes, invading collation centres and seizing the result sheets. Weeks after the elections, nobody has been charged to court for any electoral offence. And we are still waiting for the military authorities to parade the ‘fake’ soldiers who committed thuggery for politicians during the elections.

In 2016, over 30 army officers were compulsorily retired without due process, for allegedly helping the PDP manipulate the 2015 elections in some places. Almost all the victims of such capricious injustice were innocent of the allegation leveled against them. The APC re-enacted a far worse version of what it accused the PDP of doing in 2015. But the military officers and their men they employed to do the dirty job of manipulating the elections are walking freely.

Meanwhile, over 700 petitions, including against the presidential election, have been filed at the election tribunals. That is a fair reflection of the widespread anomalies that blighted the polls. This could have been avoided, or minimised, if President Muhammadu Buhari had not cynically refused to sign the Electoral Act Amendment Bill four times for very untenable reasons. One major provision in the bill is electronic transmission of election results right from the polling units in real time, thereby eliminating the existing loopholes that enable the altering of the actual figures.

Nigeria’s misfortune is that she is saddled with a political class totally lacking real patriots. Those who know that power is transient, that an electoral mandate – even when fraudulently obtained – is a sacred trust, a call to duty for the people and country, and that a legacy of advancing the country in the right direction is more enduring than the temporary elixir of political victory.

Buhari has failed that test of either being a patriot or just another power monger. He chose to be the latter by presiding over the worst elections in the last 20 years for his own and his party’s benefit. If the tribunal validates his controversial victory, he would get another chance in the next four years to redeem himself. Whether he would do so is another matter.

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