Innovative effort brings laurels

The state election commission recently won the national award for best electoral practices. The recognition is a pride for the state no doubt but most importantly it is testimony to the growing awareness among voters, especially the youths, on democracy.
Frederick Roy Kharkongor, the chief electoral officer, or CEO who received the award from President Ram Nath Kovind in Delhi, says he is “honoured and validated” by the decision of the Election Commission to choose Meghalaya from among so many big states.
“It is a collective effort and I give the credit to voters who came out in hordes, the polling officials who dared every adversity and the staff who worked very hard, among many others who were associated with the process,” says Kharkongor, with a pride written on his face that is devoid of any pretention or gloat. He also attributes the success to outstanding campaigns and imaginative ways.
The election commission, with Kharkongor at the helm, has walked an extra mile to take a small state like Meghalaya, with around 19 lakh voters, to the national platform in terms of voters’ right and encouraging the electorate to have independent views.
It was not an easy task to achieve the feat, says Kharkongor, who along with his team have tried to be innovative to connect to today’s effervescent youth. Music and art always took the centre stage in the run-up to the Assembly elections in February 2018.
There were regular shows and revue and the commission roped in local artistes and celebrities to pull in more qualitative crowd. Recently, it organised musical programmes, marathon and photography exhibitions on National Voters’ Day on January 25. “We made every effort to tap the energy of the youth,” Kharkongor says with conviction.
The commission forged “effective partnerships” with educational institutes and the creative community to spread awareness on voting and the whole process involved. Road shows, skits, graffiti, stone art (in South West Khasi Hills), peppy slogans in local languages as well as English, and prominent icons (celebrities like Usha Uthup were part of the campaign) were intrinsic part of its campaigns.
“Our motto was ‘No Voter Should Be Left Behind’. So we also made sure that voting is accessible to all, including persons with disabilities. We set up electoral literacy clubs in special schools, colleges and other institutes for the youth,” says the CEO.
Before such elaborate campaign was planned, the state election commission did a thorough survey on the voters’ preferences. Voters, points out Kharkongor, preferred face-to-face interaction or audio-visual communication.
The VVPAT, or Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail, debuted in last year’s Assembly election. To a query, Kharkongor vouches for the authenticity and transparency of the system.
“There were scepticism about EVMs and that feeling still persists. But it is impossible to hack into an EVM as its distribution is random. The VVPAT makes it completely clear. We had run extensive awareness programmes to scientifically and logically explain to voters the entire process. After all, going back to paper ballot is retrograde,” says the 44-year-old CEO and blames fake news, among other factors, for creating doubts and deliberations among citizens.
The commission also successfully ran its campaign at the grassroots level and intelligently used the traditional media, like music and songs, to convey the message in simple words. Weekly haat, village meeting points and road sides were artfully used as the podium to voice concerns over malpractices prevalent during polls and how to fight against those.
The last election saw around 87 per cent voters’ turnout, which is “very high and healthy”. However, the last election, and the subsequent byelections, witnessed urban apathy for various reasons, long queues being one of them.
“We will have a queue management app where voters can have information about respective polling stations and the crowd assembled there,” says Kharkongor while talking about the commission’s plan to extensively use technology for accessibility and transparency.
There was a human touch in last year’s poll campaign and this year too, it will be practised. Polling officials were trained in sign language with the help of Meghalaya Deaf Association last time and this time, before the Lok Sabha polls, they will be “extensively trained”.
There will be an app for poll officials and persons with disabilities to communicate.
However, certain grey areas still remain in the process. Despite intensive campaigning, money power continues to be ‘the factor’ during election in many areas. But the poll panel is taking the objective of fair election seriously and has already launched a citizen vigilance app where any citizen at any point of time can take video clips or photographs of wrongdoings and upload them. “These videos and photographs will be time-stamped and geo-tagged for authenticity,” says Kharkongor.
The CEO is confident that when muscle power and violence could be checked, cash-for-vote will also be contained in the state in the next election. Dedicated surveillance teams had made record seizures of money before the last election and this time too, there will be hawk eyes on illegal methods to buy votes.
The commission has not only successfully competed against big states but through its dedication and hard work, exposed the talent that the state has. It hopes to perform equally, if not more, sincerely in the upcoming Lok Sabha election.
~ NM

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