The misery caused by COVID-19 notwithstanding, it has opened up the possibility of the digital transformation of Indian democracy. There are several ways in which the current situation should influence a better democratic process in the future, feels Amar Patnaik, Rajya Sabha MP (BJD) from Odisha and a former CAG bureaucrat.
Referring to how the Madras and Calcutta High Courts came down heavily on the Election Commission (EC) for conducting elections in several states where COVID-appropriate behaviour was being flagrantly violated, amidst a raging second wave of the pandemic, he said that last year, during the first wave, EC had come out with ‘Broad Guidelines for the conduct of elections during COVID-19’ after consultations with national and regional political parties.
“However, a close look at EC guidelines would indicate it only tapers down the strength of mass gatherings, while still retaining the basic structure of a physical election campaigning. Many of us would know it’s impossible to comply with or effectively monitor these restrictions in the field,” he wrote in The Times Of India.
The MP gave three pointers as to how political rallies, voting, as well as Parliamentary proceedings can use technology to reduce crowding as well as save costs.
“Firstly, the lockdown opened up several possibilities for reaching out to people through online and social media, web-based broadcasts, webcasts and webinars. It’s believed that from less than 10% voters in 2014 to more than 30% voters in 2019 were influenced by social media, with more than 10 times increased spending on digital campaigns.”
“In August 2020, two events stood out as disruptive and transformative. Party workers and leaders sent messages through their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts in Congress’s SpeakUp campaign. And BJP started its Jan Samvad virtual rallies in every state in which nearly 5 lakh party workers would listen to their leader’s speeches on YouTube, Facebook Live and the Namo app. These online rallies to reach out to booth level from a central place wouldn’t have been possible in physical form. We can well imagine the drastic reduction in campaigning costs such online events would bring to the candidates,” he said.
He called for a change in the voting process with the use of technology for e-voting, “as going to a booth to press the same button in an EVM machine isn’t medically a new normal advisable in a pandemic situation.” Since keeping in mind the health ramifications is the new normal, he said arrangements to organise such elections would require EC or governments to hire almost 30-40 lakh medical staff, purchase disinfection items and provide medical supplies to ensure safety at more than 10 lakh booths.
“Besides, polling invites the involvement of security forces whose stay, movement and deployment costs are huge. Questions are raised about the security of an e-voting system. But when financial data of crores of Indians can be securely kept within the banking system through the use of robust technology, a similar possibility may well-nigh exist for e-voting by using Aadhaar-linked, individual-voter-specific, non-transferable link and exercising voting preferences either from home or from Jan Seva Kendras (mainly for rural voters),” wrote the MP in TOI.
“If this happens, one can imagine the savings that can happen in the system,” he added.
Giving the example of Estonia that has nearly perfected the e-polling system with almost 47% of the country voting online in last year’s parliamentary election, he said the Estonian i-voting system is highly transparent and digitally secure. It preserves voter’s anonymity while ensuring the right to vote with a paper ballot parallel to digital voting and is, therefore, worth emulation.
Thirdly, the very basis of a physical meeting of MPs and MLAs in a large space in the Parliament or legislatures should undergo a change. Elected representatives could meet virtually, resulting in saving travelling expenses and on marshals etc. Similarly, committee meetings could also be held virtually without bothering about the confidentiality of the proceedings which can be ensured by the adoption of appropriate security and firewalls, he suggested.
According to a study, Indian election spending is $8 per vote which is triple of what 60% of Indians survive on any given day. We need to optimise both the cost of a vote and the cost of lives, he concluded.