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Decoding: 28 Reasons for the Shrinking Credibility of the Electoral Process

India has never seen a national election with as many abuses of the electoral process as the 2024 polls. What does this tell us?
A dispersal centre, from where polling officials go to booths. Photo: Election Commission

Note: This article was originally published on May 24, 2024 and republished on May 26, 2024 with updates.

Even before 2024, India has seen election malfeasance.

It has seen booth-capturing, as in Meham. In the past too, election officials have turned away candidates who wanted to stand against a prime minister – P.V. Narasimha Rao. Voter suppression is not entirely new either. Entire villages haven’t been allowed to vote by local elites. Here is one instance, from 2011 in Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu.

Along the way, a cat-and-mouse game played out. Civil society and the Election Commission successfully mobilised against such abuses, and political parties thought up fresh connivances to swing elections. Even as cash and alcohol continued to flow to voters; and constituencies saw polarisation campaigns, sometimes riots, as parties tried to break rival caste/class/religious combinations, parties began spending far more on campaigning than the sums disclosed in their annual reports. They also became better at profiling voters – be it through offline arrangements like panna pramukhs or tech fixes like booth-level apps – and at moulding voters through mass media, social media and parties’ disinformation architectures.

Even with that backdrop, the 2024 elections stand out.

Over its first five phases, not only have modern malpractices (like overspending, disinformation and hate speeches) continued, the country has also lost past gains in electoral conduct. Once more, rival candidates have been forced to step down; booths have been captured; and voters have been intimidated. That is not all. The country is also seeing fresh malpractices (like arresting chief ministers before elections; rebel factions bagging party symbols; and candidates being declared unopposed winners well before voting).

A quick count reveals no less than 22 modes of manipulation through which the citizens’ say over their Republic — a say expressed through voting — may not be coming through as they intend. Many would say these are ways through which the promise of ‘free and fair’ elections is being taken away from citizens. And, along with it, their fundamental democratic right to choose a government and hold it accountable.

A field guide to a pivotal election

Crackdowns on opposition

1. CM arrested before polls
2. Election symbols given to rebel factions
3. Party accounts frozen before polls
4. Rival candidates forced to drop out

Vote suppression

5. Missing names from voter rolls
6. Slow voting despite heat
7. Lower deployment of EVMs despite heat
8. Voters not allowed to vote
9. Voter intimidation

Vote manipulation

10. Some party workers casting multiple votes
11. Polling agents telling people whom to vote for
12. Others casting vote on voters’ behalf
13. Voter slips with Modi photos
14. Random organisations releasing exit poll data
15. Faulty EVMs
16. Mismanagement in postal votes
17. EVM strongroom CCTV failure
18. Not sharing voter turnout numbers; Unexplained spikes in voter numbers

Model code violations

19. Hate speeches
20. Overspending
21. Use of public funds for party campaigning
22. Campaigning even on the day of voting.

Crackdowns on opposition parties

Even before voting started, the 2024 elections had moved into unfamiliar terrain. Mirroring developments in countries like Bangladesh where opposition leaders are in jail, two chief ministers — Hemant Soren and Arvind Kejriwal — were arrested on charges of corruption.

Soren, who also heads the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate citing an old money laundering case against him. Anticipating arrest, he resigned from the chief ministership. That was in January. Fifty days later, a week after the model code of conduct for the Lok Sabha elections came into force, the ED arrested Aam Aadmi Party leader Kejriwal as well, citing its ongoing investigation into the liquor case. Around the same time, the Congress charged that the government had frozen its bank accounts in a tax dispute.

This, said the party, had left it “crippled”.

In the run up to the polls, two other parties — Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar’s NCP — were hamstrung as well. The Election Commission handed their party symbols to the rebel factions of Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar.

As the tweet below shows, this has misled voters.

As polling dates neared, this crackdown on opposition moved beyond parties to candidates.

In Surat and Indore, candidates from rival parties and independents dropped out, creating an outcome where the BJP’s candidates basically won unopposed — in Surat, without even any voting.

In Surat, opposing candidates said they had been approached by the BJP. In Indore, Congress candidate Akshay Bam joined the BJP after, as the Indian Express reported, a charge of attempt to murder was framed against him in a 17-year-old case, a day after he filed his nomination.

In subsequent weeks, similar reports of rival candidates being dissuaded from contesting (by local BJP politicians and Gujarat Police) also came from Amit Shah’s Gandhinagar constituency and Modi’s Varanasi. In the latter, election officials rejected rivals’ nomination forms.

Vote suppression and manipulation

Once polling started, other developments which suppress the turnout came to light.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Names were missing from electoral lists. Despite the 2024 elections being held during what is becoming the hottest summer till date, parts of the country — like Banda in UP — saw fewer EVMs deployed than before, making voters queue longer in the heat. “People say long waiting time due to a single machine, in the 46c temp, is deterring people from voting,” reporter Bhasker Tripathi tweeted.

In Mumbai too, slow processing of voters, despite a hot day, resulted in some voters returning home.

Other parts of the country saw attempts to specifically suppress minority votes. In Sambhal, UP police stormed booths, snatched IDs and beat up minority voters. In Kaushambi, BJP workers assaulted Dalits for not voting for the party. Another complaint of voter intimidation came from Rae Bareli.

Two videos surfaced — one from Gujarat, the other from UP — where people with BJP links cast multiple votes. Banda hit headlines again — this time after a video surfaced where a polling agent is telling voters whom to vote for. In Fatehpur, UP, a woman voter said she was going to press Samajwadi Party’s symbol but a polling officer held her hand and pressed the BJP symbol.

Elsewhere in the country, voters got election slips with Modi’s photo on them.

Apart from this, in an absolute violation of the poll code, some organisations began pushing what they claim is exit poll data for Andhra even before voting ends. This reporter has a copy of one such report, which shows YSRCP winning handily.

Reports came, yet again, about faulty EVMs in high-profile constituencies needing to be replaced. Here is an instance from Rae Bareli. There are also complaints about manipulation in postal votes.

In Baramati, which is seeing a high-stakes battle between the rival NCP factions of Sharad Pawar and Ajit Pawar, the CCTV of the strongroom holding EVMs switched off for 45 minutes. The CCTV switched off at a time when the Election Commission is already under attack for reporting unexplained spikes in voter numbers much after polling.

Apart from these ground-level distortions of the electoral process, other abuses have continued as well. BJP leaders have made hate speeches a staple of these polls. Over-spending continued as well. State funds were used for BJP campaigning. And, finally, the party ran ads even on the day of voting – another violation of Election Commission strictures.

And then, there is the Election Commission itself. In its updated numbers for the first four phases, it reported a net increase of 1.07 crore voters. “That is an average of 28,000 votes per constituency for the 379 that have finished polling, reported The Times of India. This increase, significant in a country where winning margins can be much lower, is far higher in the southern states than in the north and is yet to be explained.

In the meantime, the Election Commission has refused to release Form 17C data, a record of votes polled in each polling station, after voting ends. 


What does one make of these distortions?

Some of these, like missing names from voter rolls or under-deployment of EVMs despite the heat, might be just routine Election Commission inefficiency. Especially if people of all communities in a constituency are complaining about their names being struck off. Over-zealous polling agents might be a local factor as well.

Other distortions, however, are state-backed — be it the crackdown on opposition parties and candidates; voters not being allowed to vote, as in Sambhal; or the Election Commission refusing to release voter turnout information.

How widespread are such abuses? How consequential are they likely to be?

The first of these questions is hard to answer. Most of the information on vote suppression and manipulation is anecdotal, though Election Commission data also shows an unexplained drop on voter numbers. Official reporting on electoral malfeasance is low. Bogus voting, for instance, came to light only because both the miscreants posted videos — not because poll booth observers flagged the incidents.

The second question — about the likely import of these distortions — is easier to answer. In ‘Democratic Backsliding in the World’s Largest Democracy’, academic Sabyasachi Das flagged a curious pattern. “In constituencies that were closely contested between a candidate from the incumbent party and a rival, the incumbent party (BJP) won disproportionately more of them than lost,” he wrote in the 2023 paper that got him removed from Ashoka University.

Instead of the party winning roughly half of all close contests — as would be statistically normal — the share of the BJP’s wins ranged between 69-74%. As The Wire has reported, the party won as many as 40 seats in the 2019 polls with a margin below 50,000 votes. The closest of these were Machhlishahr (a winning margin of 181 votes), Khunti (1,445), Chamarajanagar (1,817), Bardhaman-Durgapur (2,439) and Meerut (4,729). In all, it won ten seats with a margin below 10,000 votes, and another 13 with a margin below 20,000 votes.

For this reason, as this guest post on journalist Prem Panicker’s substack argues, parties do not not need large-scale rigging to win elections. All they need is enough election consulting nous to know which constituencies will see a close fight and, thereafter, determine the quantum (and mode) of vote suppression and manipulation that is needed.

This logic, however, extends beyond the closely-fought constituencies.

Taken together, these malpractices create an advantage in favour of the BJP in every constituency. The scale of this advantage, however, is unknown — 5% of total votes? 10% of total votes?

In this context, it’s pertinent to mention Ajit Anjum’s final report from Amethi on May 21, a day after polling in the constituency. In his dispatch, Anjum says Union minister Smriti Irani is making village pradhans get votes for the ruling party. He also describes a larger architecture — of coerced local reporters, the BJP’s youth wing, etc. — and wonders if this architecture can prevail over public disenchantment with Irani.

There are limits here. Push the advantage too high — and the election verdict will lose plausibility.

In all, India’s constitutional project has its work cut out. Only wins with large margins can dislodge the BJP. The party will hold an edge in close fights.

This is what happened in Chhattisgarh in 2018 – a stunning repudiation had dislodged Raman Singh that year.

Over the last ten years, India’s voters have been hit by demonetisation, GST’s botched rollout and the MSME crisis, Covid-19 mismanagement and a skewed economic recovery thereafter, rising joblessness, an economic model that, instead of helping citizens partake in economic growth, reduces them to labarthis, and a never-ending hosepipe of hate and distraction which hides the simple fact that, amidst widening precarity, only the BJP and a few handpicked businesses have gotten richer.

On June 4, we will know if voters have reached their tipping point.

Update on May 26:

The sixth phase of voting, on May 25, saw further complaints of electoral malfeasance:
An X account said BJP workers were soliciting votes on Ram’s photo (#23).
Jai Shri Ram posters were also pasted outside some voting stations (#24).
AAP leader Atishi Marlena alleged a presiding officer tried to get polling agents to sign Form 17C in the morning itself (#25).
Elsewhere in Delhi, AAP leader Somnath Bharti found BJP candidate pamphlets had been kept inside the polling booth (#26).
In UP, police raided a Samajwadi Party candidate on the day of voting (#27).
In Kashmir, PDP’s polling agents were detained (#28).

Other complaints, like slow voting — and poor arrangements despite the heat — persisted as well. As did complaints of booth capturing. The Election Commission, however, released the absolute numbers of voters for the first four phases on Saturday.

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