Overseeing India's Elections Keeps 'Tough Cookie' Busy

Commissioner deals with 590 million voters and 14,274 candidates

AS India's 590 million-strong electorate prepares to vote in national elections starting April 27, neither the prime minister nor the leader of the opposition wields more power over what happens at the polls than the country's controversial chief election commissioner, T. N. Seshan.

"Fear is not a word in my dictionary," says Mr. Seshan, who will referee the world's largest and most ambitious democratic exercise - a bewildering contest involving no less than 14,274 candidates representing 443 registered parties. "Our elections are unimaginably huge; nobody has a grasp of how extraordinary they are."

Seshan's diktat will reign supreme in India's month-long electoral extravaganza. Voting for the 543-member lower house takes place in three phases starting April 27, with counting to begin May 8. As polling day approaches, the 11th general election since independence in 1947 looks set to be a closely contested affair.

Charged with ensuring that all parties and their candidates adhere to the commission's strict code of conduct, Seshan will have at his disposal a veritable army of 5 million bureaucrats and 1.75 million security personnel to man nearly 800,000 polling stations nationwide.

Polling stations are being set up 1.25 miles apart on the plains and 2.5 miles apart in mountainous areas. In some remote constituencies, polling officials will probably outnumber voters. In others, the only mode of transportation will be by elephant, donkey, or camel.

To assist the large number of illiterate voters, the commission has allocated each party a distinctive symbol. Independent candidates have 150 symbols to choose from, ranging from balloons to elephants to umbrellas, leaving the paper ballot looking a little like a child's coloring book.

Wearing an open-neck shirt with the words "Tough Cookie," Seshan is not shy when it comes to defending the rules he has set. "If the amount of dislike people have for me is proof of my impartiality, then I am utterly impartial. There is not a single political party that doesn't absolutely hate [me]," he says.

Although none dare to criticize him openly in the days leading up to the vote, many candidates resent his reported arrogance and determination to curb electoral malpractice.

"The election is affected by three viruses called cash, criminality, and corruption, and it is affected by three m's - money power, muscle power, and minister power. We need to get rid of this," Seshan says.

The magnitude of this malaise was exposed in January when a multimillion-dollar corruption scandal engulfed almost all of India's major political parties. More than a dozen politicians have been charged, mainly for receiving undeclared campaign donations in return for favors.

Armed with a recent Supreme Court decision plugging a legal loophole that allowed parties to write off huge amounts of illegally acquired money as election expenses, Seshan can disqualify candidates who fail to account for the source of their funding.

Politicians who had planned to hire helicopters for electioneering or hold huge rallies now find themselves campaigning door-to-door because of a strictly enforced ceiling on expenses.

The limit of $13,000 per candidate - around 1/10th of what the major parties would normally spend - has taken away much of the color that normally characterizes Indian elections.

Posters, banners, and blaring loudspeakers are in short supply, and parties have been forced to come up with innovative means of attracting a generally apathetic electorate. In Patna, the Janata Dal party, led by the state's charismatic chief minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, released 100 parrots trained to say "Vote for Laloo, vote for Janata Dal."

Although he has promised to give India the best elections possible, Seshan concedes that practices such as vote rigging are inevitable. "If I tell you today the election will be incident-free, I am both a fool and naive. Our voters are nearly 600 million. Now if one-quarter of 1 percent creates trouble, the number will look very large."

Despite the huge margins for error due to the large electorate, opinion polls are predicting a hung parliament with no clearly dominant party. And the final outcome of the election may not be known for several days after counting is completed as the main parties scramble to find enough political partners to cobble together a coalition.

For his part, Seshan refuses to be drawn into speculation about who will form the next government. His only concern, he says, is that the transition be as democratic as possible.

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