Book Review | The EVMs are all right, but not media and democracy

All this is very well, but writing persuasively is a skill and an art

Update: 2023-11-04 10:22 GMT
This is a first-rate book, written with clarity, even-handedness and a love of the country and pride in her democracy, notwithstanding the warts that are hidden from no one. By Arrangement

This is a first-rate book, written with clarity, even-handedness and a love of the country and pride in her democracy, notwithstanding the warts that are hidden from no one. S.Y. Quraishi is a straight-talking man and this shows in the writing. There is no complex or woolly-headed theorising because there is no need for it, given the manner in which the case is presented here. A further quality of the volume is that there is nothing of note said here which won’t stand factual scrutiny.

Who better equipped than S.Y. Quraishi to write a book of such magnificent range on the functioning of India’s democracy through the lens of its elections which, for good reason, are the envy of the world? The author has been a member of the Election Commission of India and has also presided over the hallowed institution as its chief. He has observed elections in many countries on invitation. He came to the poll body from the Indian Administrative Service which confers on its members a wealth of experience in a variety of positions and tricky situations involving people and the most inventive of politicians.

All this is very well, but writing persuasively is a skill and an art. Specialists can drive readers to tears with an endless presentation of tables, valuable figures, worthy quotations and the like — and yet miss the soul of communication. Reading Quraishi is an altogether different experience. The arguments are rock-solid, citing relevant authority. They are informed by insight as well as gained though long years spent in the field and not just policymakers’ rooms.

Readers will also profit from looking to the end of the book which has tabulated information on issues that are of wide interest to those who take the universe of politics in its comparative dimension. Articles of the Constitution that underpin the framework for the conduct of elections in the country, along with a summary of some landmark cases, are available in the annexure. These enrich the reading experience of the lay reader and specialist alike.

The writing is non-didactic. It has an easy flow. The book takes the reader to the heart of the issues that make our democracy and our elections both precious and bitter-sweet. The relationship of the Election Commission and the judicial system is explained here and in places the author does not hold back on his disappointment with the higher judiciary although his utmost regard for the Indian judiciary comes through clearly.

The role of money power and its vitiating capacity which injures our election process — as well as all aspects of national life — is examined with lively examples from different parts of the country. The difficulty of tackling this baffling problem is acknowledged here, but no expert with empathy can have all the answers. In the end, such questions come down to the political will and political integrity of those who have been rewarded by the electorate and come to hold office.

Quraishi holds — on the basis of his experience — that the much-maligned EVMs are all right, really, and that if the VVPAT system is made to work to the voters’ satisfaction then the voting behaviour may be said to be adequately reflected. Important issues — such as the poisonous media ecosystem replete with fake news and the like, the presence of the social media which can spew venom — are well-represented in this volume.

Important political questions such as electoral bonds, Indian secularism, the question of minorities, transgender people, and the issue of proxy vote for NRIs have also been approached with sensitivity and knowledge-based argument. The discussion on issues such as the registration and de-registration of political parties, the powers of the Election Commission, the process of appointment of election commissioners and the Chief Election Commissioner, the anti-defection law and the hotly-debated subject of “One Nation, One Election” pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are revealed here in their complexity.

The themes presented in the volume were written as short essays that originally appeared as newspaper articles. At times, therefore, there is repetition when the same subject is written about with an interval or for a different publication. This is a question of editorial reorganisation of material that could have been differently tackled. All in all a worthwhile read for the lay reader, the specialist and the political class. Ruminations on elections and democracy are more needed today than at any time in the previous decades since our social and economic life has grown more complex, laying an extraordinary burden on our polity.

India’s Experiment with Democracy

By S.Y. Quraishi

HarperCollins India

pp. 552; Rs 699


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