India Votes: A Great Display of Planning, Execution
Panchalee Thakur

India Votes: A Great Display of Planning, Execution
The recently concluded general elections in India have created headlines internationally as one of the largest human events in the world. Voting took place for 543 parliamentary constituencies with almost 815 million voters across nine phases for over a month. The number of voters in India surpasses those of all 50 European countries put together. Project management is one of the key factors behind the success of this mammoth exercise.

The task of conducting elections in India lies with the Election Commission of India (ECI), an independent, constitutional body that is headed by the chief election commissioner (CEC). Dr. S. Y. Quraishi, who was the CEC during 2006-2012, deconstructs what he calls the “biggest management event of the world” in his recently released book, An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election.

What makes Indian elections a huge challenge?
India does not have a good track record in managing large public sector projects but when it comes to managing general elections, it has a strong history. The challenges are even bigger in this case because of the very uniqueness of the project.

  • The timelines are fixed at the start of the project and are non-negotiable
  • The elections are conducted with the help of a large number of government officials who are temporarily deputed for the job and are not employees of the ECI
  • The voter’s list, which is the basic tool that allows citizens to exercise their right, is highly dynamic and prone to mistakes
  • A large number of external, unforeseen risks can jeopardize the elections such as issues related to election candidates/parties, law and order, and natural calamities
  • The elections are held in an emotionally charged environment and are highly publicized, putting huge pressures on those managing it

Beside CEC, the ECI comprises of two other commissioners, 30 officers in Delhi, around 200 support staff, and 8-10 staff in each state. The temporary election staff includes at least five officials per polling station. Plus, there are reinforcement teams and security teams, totaling to around 11 million people working towards conducting elections in India.
For the ECI, work starts many months earlier with identifying eligible voters among 1.22 billion India citizens,physically reaching them, getting them photographed, listed on the electoral rolls, and delivering voter identity cards to them.

What makes the elections in India interesting is how the ECI has to take care of not just the big numbers but also the small details because of the diversity of the country. Dr. Quraishi recalls, “It was the last day of the last phase of voting during the 2009 election on 13 May. On this day, 100 million people were voting but we were most worried about the arrangements for 37 voters in two villages in the Himalayas. Our smallest polling station has just one registered voter, a temple priest who lives in a remote corner of Gujarat.”

Dr. Quraishi lists the following as some of the key project challenges:

  • Setting up of over one million temporary polling stations, installing Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), providing basic facilities like electricity, transport, GPS and other tracking and monitoring systems, and building ramps for the wheelchair-borne. Each polling station requires 122 items, including stationery, bags, candles, and torches.
  • Travelling to remote and inaccessible areas, facing terrorist threats: election officials have travelled on mules and elephants, and used helicopters to reach remote locations. There was one instance where the team took three days to reach a location on foot.
  • Prior to elections, the ECI conducts selection and training of those on election duty, makes arrangements for their and voter security with the help of local police, district administration, and para-military forces.
  • Unruly and unlawful activities at polling stations and counting centers where the local police may come under the influence of politicians.
  • Procurement activities such as acquiring and/or manufacturing EVMs, ensuring that it is fraud and tamper proof with a built-in security check, and keeping the machines under watch.
  • Educating voters on the importance of voting.
  • The use of black money by candidates to influence results by illegal means.

“Social media is playing a role nowadays, both positively and negatively. There have been instances where election results for a particular region in Uttar Pradesh had been delayed. The ECI got alerted through social media. However, there is no regulatory control to put a stop on campaigning on social media, unlike in newspapers or TV. As you know, there cannot be any campaigning 48 hours before elections,” says Dr. Quraishi.

Elections project management
Planning is the key to ensuring success. Six months prior to the elections, the ECI team visits all the states to plan election related activities state-wise, including publishing a list of politicians with a criminal record who would be barred from contesting elections.

An expenditure monitoring division is set up where candidates’ reports on expenses are submitted thrice a fortnight. Candidates have to adhere to a spending ceiling and it is the ECI’s job to monitor actual expenditure.

A key factor for project success is that roles and responsibilities are clearly assigned and ECI team members are empowered to take action. The team also draws up district, state, and constituency level election plans that address all the project management stages.

Monitoring is conducted through an impact evaluation process. Vehicles that carry EVMs are fitted with GPS technology so that they can be easily tracked. Polling officials send regular SMS updates to the monitoring team on how many votes have been cast in a polling station through the day.

A multi-tier communication strategy is adopted, especially for remote locations. Three dedicated landlines are set up for each polling booth, besides three mobile phones that are given to the polling staff, and access to wireless network of the nearest police station and satellite phones.

“The ECI keeps a check on election activities even in remote locations with the help of these communication channels. To take care of an extreme situation when all modes of communication fail, two runners are appointed at each station who will reach the nearest accessible place to inform the ECI of any problem or malpractice,” says Dr. Quraishi.

A vigilance team checks whether the polling staff are adhering to the rules. Only those officials with a clean background are taken on election duty. Officials are not assigned to their home district where they could have personal interests in the election results. The training module includes lessons on election rules and processes, and motivational aspects to instill a sense of national duty in them.

Technology plays a big role. The ECI uses live Web cameras for real-time monitoring. Dr. Quraishi recalls one incident in which the policemen stationed outside a polling booth were not allowing people to get into the polling booth. The ECI team saw this on a live Web camera that helped in taking quick action.

The ECI conducts booth-wise vulnerability mapping with data such as the size of the population under that polling station, known criminals in that area, soft targets for attack, history of election violence, and past voter turnout. Actions such as preventive arrests and additional security cover are taken.

Stakeholder management is important. The biggest stakeholders are political parties who have to be kept in confidence at all times. Candidates and voters contribute to the next set of stakeholders, followed by the state administration and the media.

“Political parties need to be made aware of the plan and schedule of elections, though the decision rests totally with the ECI. The team meets the six national parties and 44 state parties where their opinions and preferences on conducting elections are taken, along with a state-wise wish list of election dates and the number of election phases. This is a way to gain the goodwill of political parties,” Dr. Quraishi explains.

Lessons learned and the way forward
According to Dr. Quraishi, a major factor behind the success of elections in India is the empowerment of election staff. “They are entitled to take spot decisions, neutralize political pressures, and have the power to hire and fire senior civil servants in case of suspicious activities that hamper free and fair elections.”

Elections will have better results if all the stakeholders play a proactive role. Electoral rolls are often a point of concern as genuine voters are not able to vote sometimes because the electoral rolls do not have their names. Voters can proactively check whether their names are there in the list to ensure there are no surprises on polling day.

A trial run has been conducted in Goa using biometrics to identify voters. That will help eliminate the risk of bogus voting. Face recognition software is another interesting tool that captures photographs of each person who has voted. The ECI has started using this technology to check bogus voting.

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