A Nobel Peace Prize for India’s Election Commission?
An election official checks the Electronic Voting Machines. (Photo: AP)
By Narayanan Balakrishnan

A Nobel Peace Prize for India’s Election Commission?

May. 29, 2019  |     |  0 comments

As democratic systems face deep crisis in the US and UK, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at a country where it is working reasonably well. India’s Election Commission (EC) has carried out the largest democratic elections in the world by relatively free and fair means. To see how unusual it is in today’s world, especially in this part of Asia, one only has to think about Thailand, where four general election results have been “cancelled” or Indonesia where both Presidential contestants are claiming “victory”.

It may also be a good time for the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the upcoming Peace Prize to India’s Election Commission and atone for the sin of omitting Mahatma Gandhi from his richly deserved Peace Prize due to pressure from the British Empire.

The rise of the religious right in Indian politics and some instances of religious violence should not prevent observers from seeing the bigger picture. India still has an open electoral process where not just religious right parties but also Communist and even “Maoist” parties stand for elections and win. No “Maoist” party can stand for election, let alone win in most parts of Asia, including China, with the possible exception of Japan.

When India held its first elections in 1951, the Times of London editorialized condescendingly that India was holding its first and undoubtedly the “last” elections. And yet the electoral process has endured in India despite some minor hiccups in the 1970s. Even the most enduing of the election process, the US, has had its hiccups such as the Civil War, so it is the endurance that counts not the deviations. History always supplies plenty of ironies: as many sections of the British elite are openly saying that the result of the Brexit referendum is not “valid” while even the loser in Indian elections seldom if ever question the validity of the electoral process itself.

The logistics involved in Indian elections are all for the record books. Nearly a billion voters and about eleven million Election Commission workers to attend to them. There are about 84 million first time voters. In the candidate list, there is a “None of the Above” (NOTA) as one of the candidates. There are many seats among the 543 parliamentary seats where the “NOTA” votes exceed winning margins, thus giving an effective voice to those who are disgusted with all candidates!

During the campaign period, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) ran a month-long series of reports on what it called “World’s Largest Election” from various corners of India. The Channel News Asia (of Singapore) had also run a month-long series of reports on the elections. The Time Magazine had a critical cover story on Prime Minister Narendra Modi running for re-election and called him the “Divider in Chief” of India. The color and the scale of India’s elections, estimated to cost about USD 7 billion, were fascinating to the Indian and foreign media. The fact that the elections are held over seven phases from snow covered mountains to dry deserts means that it has become a “running” story for the media around the world.

Using low tech vehicles such as elephants and camels to high tech ones such as helicopters, the Election Commission of India manages to carry out the entire exercise in this poor country using Electronic Voting Machines (EVMS), something that many “advanced” industrial countries have been unable or unwilling to do. This is an example of “frugal innovation” that the world needs. It can be carried out in rugged areas of the world without constant power supply. The EVMs are not connected to the Internet at all, thus reducing the chances of external hacking. Operating with power from batteries means they work even in the remotest parts of jungles and mountains of India.

The Peace Prize should be looking into boosting the work of institutions that uphold free elections as such institutions are under threat even in some European countries. It will also be a timely reminder that “civilization” does not always move in one direction from the “West” to the “East”.

At a time when many countries, including some “democratic” ones, are engaged in the exercise of harnessing technology to invade privacy, conduct espionage or limit political freedoms, it is heartening to note such a large-scale use of technology for the expression of free political will.


The EVMs have not been universally welcomed in Luddite India, a tradition that goes all the way back to Gandhi. Losers of elections sometimes complain that the machines have been tampered with but never the winners. Since in India both the incumbents and opposition have taken turns to hold power, it can be safely assumed that the EVMs are mostly tamper proof. The issue of the reliability of the EVMs has survived many court challengers going all the way to the Supreme Court. The EVMs have been in use for more than thirty years now and now a random voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) is used as an additional safe-guard in many voting booths.


EVMS are a vast improvement over the paper and “booth” that prevailed in India a generation ago. “Booth capturing” was common especially in the poorer areas where the local strongmen often ran a parallel “government”.


Indian democracy is far from perfect of course and it is subject to traditional abuses such as “vote buying” (money politics) and new-fangled ones such as “fake news”. Funded by the Government of India, but independently managed, the Election Commission is not only in charge of the logistics of elections but is also mandated to manage the elections without hate speech, partisan government announcements and money politics.


As you can imagine in a semi-feudal country as India, the battle to conduct ethical elections is largely a losing proposition. But under the circumstances, the Election Commission is showing more and more spine in conducting raids on bags of cash, banning politicians who make hate speeches from campaigning and so on. It is a work in progress, and will no doubt get better in the future. An “international” endorsement such as a Nobel Peace Prize will boost the fortunes of the Election Commission in India. It will also make the Election Commission uphold its better traits as a role model for other Election Commissions to follow.   


The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded not only to individuals but institutions too. The International Red Cross for example has been awarded the prize. For the Nobel Peace Prize to look further East will be a step forward. The Peace Prize should be looking into boosting the work of institutions that uphold free elections as such institutions are under threat even in some European countries. It will also be a timely reminder that “civilization” does not always move in one direction from the “West” to the “East”.


The International Red Cross has been awarded the Peace Prize three times, in 1917, 1944 and 1963 and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been awarded the prize twice in 1954 and 1981. Coincidentally both these institutions are located in the heart of pristine and orderly Europe.


Perhaps it is time for the Norwegians to look further East where technology and a rising young population may be shaping an orderly future from the chaotic condition of present-day India.

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