Democracies Should Celebrate Indian Elections, the Largest Democratic Undertaking in Human History

On Friday, the India Project at Brookings co-hosted a discussion on the 2013 Indian state elections and the spring 2014 general elections, when Indians will elect their next central government. India’s chief election commissioner, V.S. Sampath, was joined by Brookings President Strobe Talbott, Ron Somers of the U.S.-India Business Council, and Sandhya Satwadi of the North America division of the Confederation of Indian Industry for the event.

Somers, who moderated the event, called the upcoming Indian elections “the largest democratic undertaking in human history about to unfold.”

Ron Somers: “We believe that here in the United States, as a democracy, we should be celebrating what is happening in India.”

Sampath outlined the enormity of election management in India: of the 1.2 billion people in India, 780 million are projected to participate in the upcoming election, from an electorate exceeding 900 million people. In comparison, Europe’s electorate: 449 million. North America’s: 324 million. Africa’s: 566 million. South America’s: 235 million.

Talbott pointed out that this participation “is larger than the United States turnout and the entire turnout of the European Union combined.” The cliché, he said, that India is the “world’s largest democracy” is true. It requires 800,000 polling stations, multiple phases, and a period of weeks. “In short, there is a very big difference between the Indian system and our own here in the United States where we Americans go to the polls in the morning and we know before we go to bed at night who has won.”

Strobe Talbott: “One of my passions, in fact right near the top of the list, is India.”

The Indian Election Commission that manages such a large event is respected as an important entity in India. Sampath explained that the Election Commission was created the day prior to the day when India became a republic in 1950, demonstrating its importance to India’s democracy.

Sampath explained that “In order to give autonomy in functioning, the chief election commissioner enjoys the same status as the top judge of the supreme court.” A two-third vote in Parliament is required to remove the election commissioner, thus diminishing the influence of political parties. The election commissioner has the responsibility of following the rules and regulations put forward in the Indian Constitution, as well as a certain amount of freedom to improvise if certain situations are not addressed by legislation. “There are any number of occasions where, but for this kind of an empowerment … supported by judicial pronouncements,” Sampath stated, “we would have found it very difficult to go through with the election process.”

V.S. Sampath: “[Our] main concern was to see that every adult Indian should have an opportunity of participating in the electoral process.”

In addition to the legal rules regulating the elections, Sampath described a Model Code of Conduct, started in 1960, that candidates are expected to follow. It does not carry the force of law—the commission cannot disqualify a candidate under the code; however, Sampath explained that “It acts more as a moral code. Once we reprimand a person, the way that is highlighted by the media, once we censure a person” then if the person does it again, the people will notice. He said that for even “the biggest political leader in the country … once there is a complaint that they have spoken something or done something in deviation of the Model Code of Conduct, the election commission gives notice to such a person … to give his explanation.”

Sampath contrasted voter registration practices in India with that in the United States, emphasizing the centrality of the electoral rolls. “We make every effort to ensure every eligible person’s name is included in the roll. This is unlike the practice in [the] USA, where even a citizen, if he wants to vote, he has to register for voting. Whereas in India, if a person is enrolled in the roll, the roll is a permanent one. As long as his name is not removed by following due process he will continue to be on the roll. He is entitled to vote in the polling station that is registered as a voter.”

V.S. Sampath: “The country is fully covered by electronic voting systems. Electronic voting machines are the simplest possible devices.”

Sampath also described how candidates’ spending is regulated to ensure fairness. “India is a country where, particularly voters in poorer localities, voters who are illiterate, they can be swayed by offering inducements, either cash or giving them some gifts … [Therefore] some limits have been fixed for each candidate” for how much they can spend.

Ron Somers: “The entire earth axis is going to likely tip when that many people go to the polls and exercise their free and fair rights to vote.”

Ultimately, Sampath described the vision of the Commission: “Elections that are completely free of crime and abuse of money, based on a perfect electoral roll and with full participation of voters.”

Somers said that, “In an age where there are Arab Springs breaking out across the world, how extraordinary that we live in democracies where this many young people are coming out to cast their vote. That is something that all of us should celebrate in our democracies.”

Satwadi closed the conversation with “two Es” and “two Is”: “Educative, Enlightening, Intriguing, and Incredible.” She said, thanking the chief election commissioner: “Clearly election management in India is no easy task and Mr. Sampath, as India embarks on yet another journey of what may be termed as ‘a celebration of democracy,’ we wish you all the very best.”

The event was co-sponsored with the Confederation of Indian Industry and the U.S.-India Business Council.

Full audio is now available.

Colleen Lineweaver contributed to this post.