The Festival of Democracy comes to an end – Insider Observations at a Counting Centre for Pune

At 8 am sharp the first EVM, tucked neatly into its case arrived on every table.

A counting centre is typically in a large space like a godown because it needs to have a particular arrangement. The central portion of the godown is completely fenced in using a chainlink. Inside there are tables arranged at intervals along the periphery. Today, four people were sitting at each table. The area outside of the chainlink enclosure is for political party representatives like me, who can observe and note down details of the counting process.

Counting Area is completely cordoned off for security purposes. But each table carries a window from which papers are exchanged for signing.

As soon as the EVM, who is the star of the show, arrives, the election officers ensure and also indicate that it is completely sealed at various points. One by one, these seals are removed in the presence of all party representatives. The serial number of EVMs is rechecked against already available list, which is given to each candidate and her/his election campaign team. Based on this list, each party has given each of its representatives a pad containing the forms against which information is filled out and submitted to the party.

The last part of the EVM opening is revealing the RESULT button. A paper covers it, which needs to be carefully cut to reveal the button. Its almost a ritualistic process, each time, the person doing it ensures that people get a view. As soon as the EVM is turned on, it conducts a self check. Amongst other factors, it declares that it is not connected to any devices and thus is ready for displaying the Results.

Once the Results button is pressed, the EVM starts displaying total votes, candidate wise votes received etc. As each number is displayed, officers and also party representatives note it down in designated formats. At any point of the process, anyone is free to raise objections, if required. Every table at the counting of every EVM, has four officers and about 4-5 party representatives observing the counting process.

At the end of each round, a photo copy of the results of that EVM are given to all party representatives. Each EVM takes about 20 minutes to complete this process. This also depends on the number of candidates that contested the election. For example, in Pune, there were 32 candidates and thus the EVM displayed the vote count of each candidate, approximately 20 seconds taken for each candidate. Post this, representatives sign on the recorded vote numbers, a copy of which is immediately given to each representative.

The delay at the Pune Constituency counting occurred mainly because there was an insistence by the Congress candidate that after every EVM counting, the result should be collated, displayed and only then the next EVM should be released from the holding area. This made the two teams, the counting team and the collating team, sit idle when the other was working. Because of this, each EVM procedure cost us 1-1.5 hours.

Eventually, this got smoothened out. 18 tables for one Assembly Constituency and each table had a task to complete 21 EMV rounds approximately. So the process that started at 8 am, finally concluded at 8 pm for all the Tables. There were some objections raised, which were sorted out. There was also an EVM malfunction, where the EVM wouldnt start, possibly due a dead battery. But at Pune and Baramati counting centre, approximately 7000-8000 EVMs were processed. Of, this only 1 EVM would not start, which probably carried the mandate of about 400-600 votes. This EVM was replaced by the next one and when charged, was once again, brought to the Table for counting.

While the Election Commission’s machinery churns, so does that of each Political parties’. Even before official numbers are announced, parties get to know the voting patterns in pockets of their constituency. Congress workers carried very impressive full sized files – each one containing a perforated pad with a carbon paper, various formats where the party representatives filled out information and data for further analysis. BJP had small pocket sized slips, where the first 5 candidates and their votes were listed along with the NOTA votes.

The NOTA did nothing this time. No perceptible gain nor loss. Again, to give a generic example, for each EVM, there were about 300-800 votes polled, based on voting lists and percentage of voting. In that, the first 3-4 candidates, in this case, Shinde of BSP, Girish Bapat of BJP, Mohan Joshi of Congress and of Vanchit Aghadi polled countable votes. Rest of the 28 candidates, carried votes in the range of 0 to 4. NOTA polled a similar vote range – 0 to 8.

The number crunching and its analysis is akin to what happens for cricket matches, with veterans comparing earlier election results. Voting numbers at the tip of their tongues. Representatives of all parties freely share their analyses. It all feels like a game, inside there!

What was just amazing to note was the diligence and the methodical approach of the people on election duty. They were approaching it with a sense of dharmic duty – a sacred ritual of electing a government for the country. Even after the counting was over after 12 hours, these fellow Indians continued way past their duty timings, to ensure that the protocols of counting and publishing of results were complete. No complaints. Many of these officers of election duty have been also a part of the Polling Day process and have spent more than 24 hours on duty to get their Polling centre ready for the Voters. This silent, behind-the-scenes, participative machinery of these fellow Indians, each of them a mere cog in the system, but each so important, is what gives the Election Commission its strength to follow protocols diligently.

Another feature that struck me today was that often in our quest for protocols and transparency we write standard operating procedures without realising the time taken to execute those. It was one my biggest learnings today. Its one thing to lay down processes, quite another to execute them. However, despite the time taken, the transparent and methodical manner in which vote counting happens is just unparalleled. For every process, a standard procedure exists and no discrepancy is left for discretion. The ECI officials were referring these SOPs during any objection raised. Entire discussion was getting recorded on video.

In my mind yesterday, I must have paid my respects to T N Sheshan a thousand times for having laid the foundation of system, to make it today, one of the best in the World. Methodical . Transparent . Free from Fear!

The Election Commission of India has titled the 2019 General Election as the Festival of Democracy. And it was truly end of a Grand Festival yesterday. Winning and losing is all part of this festival, but what matters is the mandate of the Indian citizens is considered, respected and kept at the top of everything – Beyond and above anyone’s personal priorities, ideologies and beliefs. If a majority of the People of India say so, then that is the Right way to Go! That’s Democracy for You, isn’t it!

High Security and deployment of military and police personnel at the Food Corporation of India Counting Centre for Pune and Baramati. The Centre was very nicely organized, proper signages, food arrangements for personnel.
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