Ageing US poll process creaky but credible;  India’s in trouble

The American system is actually robust, has stood the test of time and the integrity of the process is beyond reproach. 

White House
Political observers are anticipating a rousing inaugural address by the president-elect Joe Biden, who is known to toil over his speeches

Indians are getting vicarious pleasure on the apparent inefficiency of the electoral process in the United States.  Three days since polling on November 3, the results are still not completely out.  And, if incumbent President Donald Trump’s  threat is to be taken seriously, the denouement is likely to get stuck in a legal quagmire.  

But look at India. The electronic voting machines are efficient. The process is streamlined enabling voting and counting within well-set deadlines. At the end of it, there is no confusion. The winners are sworn in and that’s the end of the election.

Social media is rife with memes and comments that the “Americans need to learn from us” and “borrow our EC”. 

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Is the US electoral process really as moribund as some desis are making it out to be? Is it creaking at its hinges? A closer examination reveals the contrary. The American system is actually robust, has stood the test of time and the integrity of the process is beyond reproach. 

Whatever Trump may claim about the election being “stolen” from him, there is not a single instance of irregularity. There may be nothing like India’s centralised Election Commission but each state has its own way of conducting the election. Remember, the US is a genuinely federal nation and each state is proudly autonomous in several respects.  

Yes, there is delay in the counting of votes but that is because election officials want to leave nothing to chance and each ballot is given due weightage – whether it is “on the spot”  voting or those that came in via mail. And, anyway, what is the great hurry to come out with the results in quick time? 

Now, since Indians are crowing that their polling process is far better, let’s see if it is really true. Take the Election Commission. Other than the one exception in the form of the ex-Chief Election Commissioner T N Seshan, the constitutionally-empowered autonomous body has largely behaved like the handmaiden of the central government irrespective of who has been in power.  

Control the EC and the process becomes pliable. The subjective element in deciding whether an electoral infringement has occurred gives the EC an enormous advantage and more often than not, the government in power gets the benefit of the doubt. This can never happen in the US, as the elections are completely decentralised and for the powerful in Washington DC, it is next to impossible to manipulate the narrative.

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Once elections are conducted in India and a political party comes to power with the “super-efficiency” that everyone and their grandparents are shouting from the rooftops,  the results are not etched in stone. They can easily be subverted. This has become the sine non qua especially since 2014 when the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power.  

State after state has voted one party to power and in a few months defections happen or are made to happen and/or elected members resign enabling the out-of-power BJP to occupy the coveted gaddi. Karnataka, Goa and Madhya Pradesh are but a few recent examples. Those wanting to teach Americans how to conduct elections have never raised their erudite voices against this brazen subversion of democracy.  

At the moment, the Bihar Assembly elections are going on along with the US elections. There are several memes on social media pointing to the peaceful nature of the electoral process in a state infamous for poll-related violence, even as the threat of riots hangs over the US.  

While there is no doubt that elections in Bihar have so far largely been peaceful, there is no guarantee that the results of the polls will be respected in the event of a BJP defeat. If Tejeshwar Yadav’s opposition RJD comes to power, it is a matter of time before it will break down enabling the BJP to take over power.  

In fact, this is what happened in 2015 when the anti-BJP coalition led by Nitish Kumar of the JD (U) came to power. Two years later, Nitish broke away from the coalition and joined hands with the BJP. They have since been in power. Clearly, the electorate had not mandated this arrangement since the original coalition was constituted  before the polls were held.  

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The US, meanwhile,  has conducted presidential elections for around 200 years, no less.   There is a clamour, justifiably, for electoral reforms there. But none can question the integrity of the process and the respect that almost all Americans have for the result, whatever that might be. 

The system of electors and the Electoral College, for example, is seen as outdated. That it was meant for a time when the US was still a fledgling democracy coming to grips with a nation that felt vulnerable and threatened to disintegrate. The founders of the American nation decided that there needed to be a safety filter to ensure that whoever was elected conformed to the then notions of respectability that included, among others things, class, education, family background and the individual’s standing in society. 

But the logic of the Electoral College has come under test in recent years as it can technically run counter to the popular vote. In 2016, the Democratic party candidate Hilary Clinton won more popular votes than her rival Donald Trump but was beaten in the Electoral College numbers. Such instances have boosted the call for abolition of the electors’ system.   

If the Electoral College is indeed removed, it would also ensure that a defeated president leaves office quickly rather than hang around for two more months until the presidency is handed over to the incoming candidate.  

In the current situation, the world and the US will have to put up with a sulking Trump until he hands over power to the winning candidate Joe Biden. And someone like Trump despite being a lame duck president during this period, and known for his unpredictability, has the potential to come up with something untoward that the nation may have to deal with later. 

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In a country that fathered the Internet and brought in connectivity on a revolutionary scale across the world, the reluctance to incorporate the latest technology in electioneering is something of an anomaly.  

There are other demands including converting elections into a multi-party affair to reflect the changing times. 

But these are accessorial to the core issue of electoral integrity which remains solid –  that is why it is difficult to imagine that anyone in the US, even if it is Trump, can meddle with the system successfully. Unfortunately,  the same cannot be said about India.  

Instead of indulging in schadenfreude, Indians would be well advised to make their electoral system hardy and bring in fairness so that it can function with credibility for at least the next 200 years — like what the US has done so far.

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