I went on a week's trip to Sikkim in India recently and what a relief it was from the oppressive heat on the plains. I visited Sikkim's capital Gangtok and a few other places there. I went to Lake Tsomgo, not too far from Gangtok, nestled 12,313 ft high, near the strategically significant Nathula pass along India's eastern border with China.

The breathtaking natural beauty of icy lake is a great tourist attraction. During the 1962 China-India war, this 14,140 ft mountain pass went under Chinese occupation. Sikkim was then a tiny independent state of the eastern Himalayas, under 'Indian rule'. Under strategic considerations, in 1975 Sikkim was handed over to India with mutual 'consent'. Now Sikkim has the status of an Indian state. There are presently several Indian military encampments along the Sikkim-China border and the Nathula mountain pass. Its proximity with the Siliguri corridor or Chicken Neck, Sikkim has heightened Sikkim's strategic importance. I think it is more important than Aksai Chin in that sense.

My writing today is not a travelogue. Before leaving Dhaka, I had a courtesy meeting with the chief election commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal and a couple of commissioners. The meeting was held at the behest of the CEC. Prior to that, I didn't have any very detailed discussion with the present commission. I had only been present at one of the dialogues they had arranged and the discussions hadn't been very effective.

Many topics were discussed this time. The conversation veered towards my book, 'Nirbachan Commission-e Panch Bochhor' (Five Years in the election commission), based on my experience in the institution. While speaking to the present commission, I felt that perhaps the commission did want to conduct a good election, but it would be difficult to conduct the next national parliamentary election in accordance with the constitution. If all the parties did not join in the election, there was no saying what situation may emerge.

I spoke from my experience and little knowledge. Regarding the forthcoming election to the five city corporations, I told them to get an understanding from their predecessor, the late commissioner Mahbub Talukdar, who shared his experiences of the city corporation polls in his book 'Nirbachannama' (pages 145 to 174). I asked them to take into consideration his deliberations on the Barishal city polls on page 175 of the book. As Barishal is my home town, I had keenly observed the last city election there. I agree with Mahbub Talukdar's evaluation. I had thought at the time that if the election had been cancelled, the commission may have gained the people's confidence.

The city corporation elections this time round may be even more difficult. The elections of Gazipur, Sylhet and Khulna in particular may be even trickier. These may be test cases for the election commission, but in no way can these be compared to the national parliamentary election. In the national parliamentary election, massive work is undertaken and people turn up in huge numbers too. Coordinating a national election is a daunting task. And ballot papers will be used in the next national election. That is not all. The national election is almost like an extensive battleground.

Given the prevailing circumstances, it is a huge challenge for the election commission to conduct the election. Even though the major opposition party is not taking part in the city corporation polls, it is the government-supported candidates in certain city corporations that may pose as a challenge to the commission. It is evident from recent statements of the CEC that the commission is well aware of this situation.

In the future if the election can be held in several phases, the election commission will be able to establish its control at the field level more effectively

Keeping control at the grassroots is a major challenge for the election commission both in the city corporation polls and in the national election. The Habibul Awal commission realised this only too well in the Gazipur by-polls. Certain measures and tests will certainly help them in their efforts to ensure control in a few of the forthcoming elections. The election commission must come up with innovative measures to keep control on the law enforcement and the officials involved in the election.

Among the measures that the election commission must take are, firstly, to establishing digital communication network directly from the centre between the commission and the presiding officers. Secondly, appointing several returning officers during the national parliamentary election. And thirdly, within their capacity, for the election commission to appoint its own observers. The task of these observers will be to directly inform the election commission of any discrepancy and to investigate any allegation if necessary and inform the commission accordingly.

I have a number of more recommendations to ensure control at the grassroots during the election. One of the major recommendations is to have a monitoring team to monitor the election expenses and to carry out this monitoring weekly or every three days during the campaigning. That may not be possible immediately, given the prevailing political culture in our country. But in the future if the election can be held in several phases, the election commission will be able to establish its control at the field level more effectively.

While talking to the election commission, I stressed on the need to draw up two manuals. One would be a 'security manual' to make the law enforcement agencies more accountable and responsible. The appointment and duties of every member would be recorded in detail here. The second manual would be the 'complaint manual' which would include rules of immediately lodging complaints, forming an inquiry team immediately and such actions. In the past the commissions would not bother to listen to most of the suggestions. After the last commission stepped down, they admitted the allegations of votes being cast on the night before the elections, but took no action when this occurred. They took no initiative to record these allegations.

Meanwhile, the election commission has sent a proposal to the law ministry for certain amendments to the Representation of the People's Order (RPO). Prominent among these is that before the results are published as a gazette, the election commission can call for a recount of the votes if there are allegations with tangible proof. I believe that if the government actually wants to empower the commission, then this rule must be included. Also, it is not enough just having a law. The election commission must enforce these properly.

Finally, the media plays a very strong and supportive role in ensuring the transparency of the election commission and public trust in it. In the present and modern election system, the media is an important support for the election commission and the election process. The election commission should do nothing that makes it an obstruction to the media. A recent circular issued by the commission in relation to the media gave rise to certain misunderstanding. The commission has said it will look into the matter. We hope that the commission steps up its coordination between words and deeds. If the election is controversial and not credible due to the laxity of the election commission, then the commission will have to carry the lion's share of the liability.

* Dr M Sakhawat Hossain is an election analyst, former army officer and SIPG senior research fellow (NSU). He may be contacted at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print an online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir