'Elections: An undocumented Wonder' by Dr SY Quraishi -Book Review

Former CEC Dr SY Quraishi unravels the myth and mystery behind the great election machine, the men and women who run the world’s largest democracy and the citizens who participate in it with great gusto in his book, 'An Undocumented Wonder'. The book will be launched in Mumbai on 9th May

The Indian election is a gigantic exercise that is often called the “greatest show on earth”, not merely because of the scale, size and diversity of the exercise but because of the vibrant volatility of our democracy.


Dr SY Quraishi’s well-written book “An undocumented Wonder- the Making of the Great Indian Election” would be launched in Mumbai (https://www.moneylife.in/events/Quraishibooklaunch/index.html ) on 9th May by Deepak Parekh, in presence of television and film actor Kabir Bedi and note social activist Medha Patkar, at the Indian Merchants Chamber.


Gopalkrishna Gandhi succinctly sums this up in his foreword to the book. He says, “India is valued the world over for a great many things, but for three over others: The Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi and India’s electoral democracy. The credit for the last of the three fames goes to the people of India ... The people are the propulsive force, the driving energy of India’s Electoral democracy. ... But the vehicle’s engine, where ignition and combustion take place and the fuel and engine combine to move the vehicle is the Election Commission of India (ECI)”. And behind the vehicle’s steering wheel is the Chief Election Commissioner of India (CEC)”. Dr SY Quraishi, by documenting 'The Making of the Great Indian Election”, he says, has not only given us a ‘vivid portrayal of what makes India’s elections work and prevail over many obstacles that confront it’, but by also ‘confidence and pride’.


If only this well-written book had been released before the 2014 Parliamentary Elections instead of making its appearance at the fag end of the polls in May 2014, it would have made a world of difference, more particularly to the lakhs of people who were reportedly unable to vote in Pune, Nagpur and Mumbai. The Election Commission ought to have announced to citizens via print and electronic media that it expects everyone to recheck their names, even if they have been voting in all earlier elections. It would have made a big difference.


Dr Quraishi, in the chapter on Use of technology in the Indian elections outlines the Election Commission’s efforts at providing better services that include online enrolment in electoral rolls, complaint registration and public grievance management, call centres for public grievances, online information sharing and electoral roll search.


Dr Quraishi writes - “The book is my modest attempt to unravel the myth and mystery behind the great election machine, the men and women who run the world’s largest democracy and the citizens who participate in it with great gusto.


As promised, the pages are 'replete with anecdotes, case studies and analyses’. It ends with the author's reflections on ‘a few unresolved issues that affect Indian polity’ such as the paradox of great elections and a flawed democracy, election as the mother of corruption, the rise of the rich in politics, participation without representation, protest and participatory politics, the election as a festival and not a funeral’. Dr Quraishi also dwells at length on his own innovations, including the creation of Voters’ Education and Election Expenditure Monitoring Divisions, India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management and distribution of voter slips and their impact. Here again, as a Mumbaikar, I believe, if the distribution of voter slips was known to more voters through a public information campaign, they would have checked out to ascertain their names figure in the voting list and would not have had to return disappointed.


The book is divided into thirteen chapters – the most interesting reads are Engaging Youth: Converting Subjects into Citizens, Secure Elections Safer Democracy, Voter Education towards peoples’ participation, and Money power in elections.


The most illuminative to me is an extract on Election rules and processes in early medieval India (sourced from www.conserveheritage.org) listing inter alia the selection process in ancient India. The nominee’s name written on a pre-designed palm leaf is dropped in the common pot (kodavolai in Tamil) on election day, in the presence of all the people. The oldest priest randomly transfers some leaves to another pot and a small boy from the crowd is asked to pick one. The winner is chosen. The basic criteria for contesting is that the candidate lives in a house on taxpaid land, is between the age of 35 and 70, knows the rules and laws mantra-prahmaana. The qualifications required are– knowledge of business, honest income, a pure mind and not been on any previous committees. The disqualifications are more stringent; they exclude those who are foolhardy, those who have accepted bribes in any form, have been on a committee that has not submitted accounts, the foolhardy, those who have stolen the property of another, partaken in forbidden dishes, committed sins and have become pure by performing expiatory ceremonies or those guilty of incest. For a country whose Bharatiya Sanskriti goes back millennia, some of these some of these qualifications and disqualifications probably need to be included in the Representation of Peoples Act, Election Moral Code of Conduct that are violated so brazenly.


Another interesting box lists the modus operandi of hiding illegal expenses during elections. The 40 different modes listed are unique, as also the six ways of corrupt political financing. There is a page on Financial Discipline and Accountability that requires audit of election expenditure by EC empanelled chartered accountants. These in-house auditors of political parties “are naturally likely to do a perfunctory or whitewash job” says the author.


Some over hyped controversies includes a box on How costly was the cost of covering Mayawati/ BSP symbol ‘elephant’. Dr Quraishi’s also has some interesting comments on his predecessors such as TN Seshan chomping carrots and gabbling on about how he eats politicians for breakfast, JM Lyngdoh being a stickler for rules, who moved Gujarat Chief Minister to refer to him in public rallies as ‘James Michael Lyngdoh in a sly reference to the fact that he is a Christian.’


The chapter Emerging concerns in Electoral Reforms delves with concerns of aam citizens like cleaning criminalization of politics, Tainted MPs in the Lok Sabha, Inner Party Democracy, Transparency in accounts of parties, the problem of dummy candidates, Right to Reject.


The pros and cons of the NOTA option that is used in France, Belgium, Brazil, Chile and Bangladesh, provisions regarding the Right to Reject in Canada are discussed at length. Compulsory Voting, relevance of First-past-the-post and Proportional Representation systems also figure.


The concluding chapter Reflections and afterthoughts has an interesting quote from Sir Winston Churchill –“Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried’ and failed.” This has his reflections on Trust in public institutions, Tally of the tainted, Enriching the rich, Mother of all corruption, Good Elections Flawed Democracy, Fifty plus one, his views on compulsory voting, Funereal or Festival, Yes, We Can, Is AAP Movement Democracy or Anarchy?


Overall, this book is a must read for all Indians to understand, from a man who has conducted this greatest show, what it means to participate in the election process. They will then see that being part of democratic India is not a right or a duty but a privilege and hopefully we will see even larger numbers of people coming out to vote in the future.

An Undocumented Wonder

Author: Dr SY Quraishi
Publisher: Rainlight Rupa,
434 pages
Price: Rs795 

(Nagesh Kini is a Mumbai-based chartered accountant turned concerned citizen activist.)

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