Election rigging: The emperor of all political maladies

In an electoral autocracy, regular elections are held, but they are accused of failing to reach democratic standards of freedom and fairness.

ByFaisal C.K.

Published Feb 26, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedFeb 26, 2024 | 2:00 PM

Election. Representative image. (iStock)

The Supreme Court recently quashed the result of the Chandigarh mayoral election after finding that presiding officer Anil Masih had illegally invalidated eight ballots cast in favour of the Aam Aadmi Party-Congress alliance, thereby ensuring a wrongful victory for the BJP candidate.

Cameras had captured the Returning Officer’s marking or defacing of ballot papers.

The Court ordered the prosecution of the Returning Officer for the poll, a BJP leader, for his “misdemeanour” after finding severe faults in the conduct of the mayoral election.

“This is a mockery of democracy. This is a murder of democracy,” the Chief Justice commented on the election manipulation. It is the latest and one of the most stinking episodes of election rigging skulduggery in India and only the tip of the malign iceberg.

Also Read: ‘Mockery, murder of democracy’, says CJI on Chandigarh mayoral polls

Election rigging

Election rigging may be defined as illegitimate and undemocratic means of tilting the playing field clearly in favour of one party or candidate at the expense of others.

Virtually, there is a toolkit of election rigging tactics that enable the counterfeit democrats to hold on to power. This toolkit is a cornucopia for the dictators and counterfeit democrats but a nightmarish Pandora’s box for true democrats.

Election rigging is a black art with many genres like gerrymandering, vote buying, ballot box stuffing, voter repression, hacking the election, stuffing the ballot box, voter suppression, electoral exclusion, etc. A flawed election delivers greater legitimacy and international support to the counterfeit democrats, but it profoundly undermines the democratic process.

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How technology aids rigging

Technology advancements are expected to bring about more transparency in the election process. For example, the video recording of Chandigarh’s mayoral election helped to detect the manipulation.

Albert Einstein’s comparison of technological progress to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal is highly relevant today. Vindicating Einstein, technology has gifted the counterfeit democrats a bundle of election rigging techniques.

In the 2013 elections in Azerbaijan, the authoritarian and repressive regime of President Ilham Aliyev sought to boost its democratic credentials by launching an iPhone app that enabled voters to keep up to speed with the vote tallies as ballot counting took place in real-time.

However, users were startled to find that they could see the results on the app the day before the polls opened. Anyone with the app could see who had won, who had lost, and by how much before people had even cast a single ballot.

Dictator Aliyev’s cat jumped out of the bag, but this is not true in all election rigging instances. Sophisticated counterfeit democratic regimes begin the election rigging well in advance of polling, and if the manipulations work well, vote tampering and violence never become necessary because the result has already been fixed.

Also Read: It is people’s responsibility to protect Constitution, says Karnataka CM

Information warfare

Information warfare is another addition to the Election rigging toolkit.

In the Kenyan presidential election of 2007, the opponents of the leading opposition candidate, Raila Odinga, fabricated a Memorandum of Understanding that he was falsely alleged to have signed with Muslim leaders to transform Kenya into an Islamic state. His rivals widely circulated it.

It was an elaborate hoax, and Odinga had committed to investing more government funds in the less-developed coastal area of Kenya.

Invisible rigging is the most effective and pernicious tactic of election manipulation. In the 1998 St Petersburg assembly elections, the incumbent Governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, was hellbent on politically eliminating his rival, Oleg Sergeyev.

When Sergeyev launched his election campaign, he was stunned to learn the names of his opponents — two Oleg Sergeyevs — one Sergeyev was an obscure pensioner and the other, an unemployed man!

When voters arrived at the ballot box, they were unsure which Sergeyev was the original political Sergeyev. Many cast votes for the ‘wrong’ Sergeyev, exactly as intended.

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Signs of an electoral autocracy

The credibility of elections in India is alarmingly diminishing in the eyes of Western democracy watchers. In 2021, the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden ranked India as an ‘electoral autocracy’.

It is a hybrid regime in which democratic institutions are imitative and adhere to authoritarian methods. Regular elections are held in these regimes, but they are accused of failing to reach democratic standards of freedom and fairness.

In the Democracy Report 2023 titled ‘Defiance in the Face of autocratisation’, V-Dem said India was among the “worst autocratisers in the last ten years”.

According to the V-Dem data, 72 percent of the world’s population — 5.7 billion people — now live in electoral or closed autocracies. That is an increase from 46 percent ten years ago.

The V-Dem data underlines another reminder of how the wave of autocratisation is unfolding worldwide. A plurality — 44 percent of the world’s population, or 3.5 billion people — reside in electoral autocracies, which include populous countries such as India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, The Philippines, and Türkiye.

Also Read: Ex-bureaucrat asks to ensure no political affiliations in board of EVM-makers

Impact in upcoming elections

In one of the most extensive tests for global democracy, 40 countries, including India, will hold elections this year.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has called the most horrendous shots of election rigging in this global election season.

Alexei Navalny, the most vocal critic of Putin’s dictatorship, was found mysteriously dead in his Siberian prison on 16 February, 2024.

Subsequently, the Russian electoral authority banned Boris Nadezhdin, an anti-war candidate who gathered unexpected momentum from running against Vladimir Putin in the carefully managed presidential elections in March.

The central election commission said it had found “irregularities” in over 9,000 of more than 100,000 signatures of support submitted by Boris Nadezhdin. It is a clear case of electoral exclusion, a lethal weapon in the election rigging toolkit. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the elections were conducted in a patently dubious manner. In Bangladesh, less than 40 percent of eligible voters cast their votes.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee, is a discerning enquiry on the most deadly disease.

One can rightly compare election rigging to cancer.

Dr Mukherjee wrote in his book: “In a sense, this is a military history—one in which the adversary is formless, timeless, and pervasive. Here, too, there are victories and losses, campaigns upon campaigns, heroes and hubris, survival and resilience—and inevitably, the wounded, the condemned, the forgotten, the dead. In the end, cancer truly emerges, as a nineteenth-century surgeon once wrote in a book’s frontispiece, as ‘the emperor of all maladies, the King of terrors.”

Election rigging is as old as the election itself and remains the emperor of all political maladies.

Sir Winston Churchill summed up the eternal charm of democracy: “At the bottom of all tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper—no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.”

Hence, the ultimate winner in a fair election is the little man, and the ultimate victim of election rigging is none but the little man rather than the defeated candidate.

(Faisal CK is Deputy Law Secretary to the Government of Kerala. Views are personal)