The role of election commissions in the regulation of elections is of vital importance throughout the world, not the least because democratic legitimacy turns on election credibility. In many countries, opposition parties protest election results and boycott elections. The legitimacy of election results is questioned because the institutions that ensure their validity are themselves questionable.
In India, one of the most heterogeneous societies in the world, politics remains highly contentious. Both the democratic system and the state secure their legitimacy through regular free and fair elections. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has an unblemished record of conducting free and fair elections in India, not only the most populous but also one of the most potentially fractious democracies in the world.
It has overseen the completion of 17 national and over 370 state elections since Independence. It also conducts some of the largest and longest elections in the world. The 2019 parliamentary elections, for example, had 900 million eligible voters and were completed in nine phases over 39 days.
Celebrated as an ‘undocumented wonder’, the ECI has emerged as a guardian of public value-free and fair elections—in India. It is not only one of the most widely celebrated and trusted public institutions in India, but also one of the most powerful and respected electoral regulatory bodies in the world.
Ever under pressure from the executive and ruling parties to bow to demands fed by their desire for electoral windfalls, the ECI managed to strengthen its autonomy through assertive leadership by a series of Chief Electoral Commissioners.
The institutional values of competence and integrity enhanced the ECE’s credibility. It gradually increased its credibility by offering additional protections to voters and procedural assurances of the fairness of the voting process. As it did so, it began to enforce a Model Code and expanded the scale and duration of the electoral process. Political parties that had become increasingly reliant on a strong, neutral referee institution were unable to resist the ECE’s expansionist interpretation of its mandate.
This has happened at a time when democracy the world over has struggled to take root in low-income countries. India’s democratic record also makes it an outlier in this respect. Elections have remained popular with the poor. Members of socially excluded groups have emerged as powerful political leaders. Steps taken by the ECI have ensured that the poor and marginalized have been enthusiastic voters and have participated in elections in increasing numbers without fear of intimidation by higher ranked, more powerful groups. The security provided to poor voters has also enabled the rise of marginalized groups’ political parties. Leaders from these groups have achieved electoral success.
Few low-income democracies can claim such transformative achievements. The ECI emerged as a credible referee institution, not only for India but as a model for the developing world, where contested election results and biased referee institutions have often weakened the foundations of democracy.
It has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Nations (UN) to assist Palestine, Sweden, the UK, Bangladesh, and others in conducting elections. It is also providing technical support and user-friendly resources and advice to Election authorities elsewhere, on request.