The Economist explains: Why India is so good at organising elections

INDIA’S general election is a massive affair. From April 7th to May 12th, across seven phases, 815m people will be eligible to cast votes in the biggest democratic exercise on Earth.

Since the previous one, in 2009, an extra 100m people have been added to the voters’ roll. For all its cost and complications, it is expected to go smoothly.

Political parties may break limits on what they are supposed to spend, but elections in India are broadly clean, in the sense that results are not rigged. Turnout is roughly the same as in Western democracies: 60-70% of the electorate are expected to take part in the 16th general election since independence.

Nor does anybody see a serious threat of violence, even in areas afflicted by Maoist or other insurgents. The contrast with bloody elections experienced by the neighbours—Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and even the Maldives—could not be more stark.

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On the face of it, such a triumph is puzzling. Ask Indians about the capacity of their state, and the typical reaction is dismissive. Much else organised by public officials is notably shoddy: try making use of state-run schools or hospitals, getting help from a policeman, or relying on food-subsidy schemes.

A security personnel stands guard as people line up to cast their vote outside a polling station in Nakhrai village in Tinsukia district Assam, India, April 7, 2014

Corruption, waste, delays and mismanagement are depressingly common. Notice, too, the embarrassing failures of India’s navy, plagued by fatal accidents in the past year, the prolonged lack of investment in the national railways, or the state’s failure to build enough roads, power lines or ports. How can India get the electoral process to work so well, when much else is done so badly?

One answer is that elections are narrowly focused tasks of limited duration that are regularly repeated. Where similar conditions hold, bureaucrats prove similarly successful. One example is the ten-yearly national census; a newer success is a scheme to build the world’s largest biometric database, which has enrolled some 600m people, scanning their eyes, fingerprints and more. (Whether this data will be put to good use is another matter.

It is worth noting, too, that much work was done by private contractors overseen by public officials.) A second answer is that state employees respond well when given tasks of great prestige and put under careful public scrutiny. Thus India’s space agency last year launched a spaceship to Mars which continues on course, for a remarkably small budget.

Activists of National Conference listen during an election rally addressed by Indian Minister of New and Renewable Energy and party patron Dr. Farooq Abdullah in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir

Similarly, public-health officials recently announced that India had eradicated polio. A third answer is that bureaucrats succeed when free from political meddling and corruption. The Election Commission, like the central bank, is independent. And whereas policemen spend much of their time collecting bribes to pay to their superiors, election officials have neither big budgets to divert, nor much opportunity to extract bribes.

The electoral process may hold lessons that could be applied elsewhere. One is the value of setting a simple, well-defined target. How about next telling officials to reduce by ten places a year India’s rotten ranking of 134th (out of 189) on the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” index? Another lesson is the importance of transparency.

It is harder for politicians to meddle and steal when bureaucrats, like election officials, are under intense public scrutiny. Extending the country’s right-to-information law, however embarrassing the rot that has been exposed, has proved immensely valuable. Last, bureaucrats become more efficient, and less corrupt, when they lose discretionary powers.

Those who organise elections have no discretion to decide who is allowed to vote or where; they are only supposed to ensure it all works efficiently, leaving little incentive for people to bribe or bully them. Whoever wins this year’s election could do worse than look at the electoral process itself as a model of how to sharpen up India’s bureaucracy.