Give it up for India’s Election Commission (EC) which has just concluded the world’s largest election yet again with characteristic resolve.
Spread over nine phases and more than a month, a little over 66% of the nearly 814 million electorate voted this time. That makes it over 538 million people voting. Think of it as the world’s third most populous country voting within the world’s second most populous country. No matter how once slices and dices it, this is a staggering accomplishment. (These figures update my calculations reflected in yesterday’s post slightly but the essential point about the flaws/peculiarities still remains completely valid. I had presumed a 60% voter turnout.)
Among India’s robust successes as a nation-state, the Election Commission ranks right there among the top three or five institutions that any country in the world would be thrilled to emulate. I have been saying for a while that the EC should create a university exclusively offering courses in electoral management and democratic institution building to countries around the world. It can emerge as a great career option.
The Press Trust of India (PTI) has reported that the election has cost India 34.26 billion rupees (about $570 million), a figure that represents a 131% jump over the 2009 election which cost Rs. 14.38 billion (about $299 million at the prevailing dollar-rupee exchange rate average of 48 rupees to the dollar). Contrast that with what here in the United States, an electoral democracy with a little over 206 million voters, individual candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney along with Political Action Committees (PACs) spent in 2012. While the PACs, which essentially contain private moneybags just dumping huge cash, spent over $620 million, the two candidates between them spent about $1.4 billion. Obama raised over $1.1 billion while Romney $931 million. They could have individually funded the world’s largest election and still kept a huge amount of cash on hand.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Federal Election Commission spent close to $6 billion on the 2012 American election. What this means is that delivering democracy in America, which calls itself the world’s most powerful democracy, costs 10 to 12 times more than what it does in India. Remember that the $570 million that the EC spent covered 814 million eligible voters choosing from over 40 political parties while in the U.S. the $6 billion covered 206 million eligible voters choosing from two parties. If I take this calculation further to somewhat ridiculous lengths, it cost India 70 cents per voter for facilitating the exercise of their franchise compared to over $29 per voter here.
I cite all these complex figures only to underscore that while judging the depth of democracy and respect for individual voting rights as part of deciding how great a civilization is one must get into these details. Of course, democracy is much more than being able to vote. It is about what kind impact for genuine change in living standards an individual vote makes. India has a long way to go there but at least it is trying to get there.
Sixty six percent voter turnout is an impressive number and a high voter turnout at the end of a long rule of a particular political grouping normally signifies an upending anti-incumbency vote. We are just three days away from finding out whether that is indeed the case.
On a wholly unrelated note, I want to get this out of my system. President Obama has said in a statement "We look forward to the formation of a new government once election results are announced and to working closely with India’s next administration to make the coming years equally transformative." It is not as if there is much room to say anything else. However, considering the very distinct possibility that Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning the election, the president has to put it out there. That’s because since 2005 Modi has been denied a U.S. visa on the question of violating religious freedom in his home state of Gujarat. I will write more about this in the coming days.