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Home > News > Columnists > Avinash Kolhe

Democracy, bureaucracy and armed forces

April 23, 2004

The Indian election to the 14th Lok Sabha will be the first general election of this century. This is also the first election where the bureaucracy and armed forces will get a real opportunity to exercise their franchise. All these years, they had voting rights but not more than 10 percent could cast their vote at the polling booth.

Not any more.

The fundamental principle of democracy is that people get an opportunity to choose their representatives. The State must make sure that each and every section of society is in a position to exercise their choice.

TheConstitution does deny any voter her/his voting rights. Even the bureaucracy and the armed forces -- the two important organs of any nation-state -- enjoy the right to pick their representatives.

However, the situation till some months ago was such that they could not enjoy this right physically. But now with the amendment in the People's Representative Act, 1971, personnel of the armed forces can use the proxy voting system to cast their vote. This amendment was passed in August 2003 after a long drawn debate.

Before one goes into the merit of this amendment, one must understand the two real issues that normally come up in this discussion. One, in a democratic set-up where change of government is possible every five years, should personnel of the armed forces and civil services be given voting rights, which is nothing but a political choice?

A political opinion is nothing but a preference in favour of a party for its policy or programme. If one likes it one votes for that party. If not, one looks for an alternative. But this is acceptable in case of a citizen who is NOT a part of the government machinery and who is not involved in the planning and implementation of any policy or programme.

Supposing one civil servant has voted for a party that has managed to come to power, it is quite likely and natural for her/him to feel more committed to the programmes of his party. In this case, s/he would be performing with more zeal and enthusiasm. In case his party is defeated in the next general election, s/he may not show the same level of enthusiasm and zeal for the programmes of the rival party.

Not only this if he is ultra-committed, he may even work against such programmes from within and ensure that they fail. This is one of the important reason why civil services should not have voting rights, goes one view.

On the other hand, there are powerful reasons to allow them to vote. In the case of a poor country like India, by not allowing a trained, educated, experienced civil servant voting rights, one is depriving the country the advantage of an informed political opinion. These are the two extremes on this issue. And our Constitution makers in their wisdom decided to give voting rights to the civil and armed services.

Yet the members of the armed forces could hardly exercise their right because often they were posted far away from their homes. Though there has been a provision of a system of postal ballot, in reality this was an impossible system to make use of.

If one talks to a soldier who has put in 30 to 40 years in the army, he would tell you that he rarely/or never got to exercise his vote. And the fault lies with the very concept of the postal ballot. The electoral office of the constituency, to which a defence service person is registered, was expected to mail the ballot papers to such personnel wherever they were stationed. The service voter had to fill the ballot paper and then post it back.

The problem lay in the implementation of the system. In almost every instance, those who received the ballot papers were remarkably few. And it can be assumed that of those few, the number ofballot papers that eventually reachedthe ballot box by the set date would be still fewer.

For years the defence forces had been requesting the government to change the system into something that is workable. Many proposals were submitted; discussed, revised and finally shelved. This was simply because the government always stonewalled their recommendations. One standard reason to explain this lethargy could be that in a democracy if you want anything from the government you must be able to blackmail the system, only then does the system yield. Not otherwise. Defence personnel cannot to resort to strike, dharna nor can they air their grievances publicly.

By the 1990s the situation began to change. The proposed changes to the election law first came up before Parliament in 1997, but as usual the proposals gathered dust. When George Fernandes came on the scene, the situation began to change. One may havedifferences withFernandes butone cannot denythat he is the best defence minister India has had. He is the darling of the defence forces. He took the initiative to push the bill for proxy voting.

The Election Law Amendment 2003 was finally passed in August 2003.This landmark event went unnoticed and unreported.

Thanks to this amendment, the armed forces will now have three options. One, if s/he is in her/his town during election time, s/he can vote like any other citizen. Secondly, from his duty station s/he can either use the postal ballot system. Thirdly, he now can appoint a proxy to vote on his behalf. Of course, there arecertain formalities to be completed. Here the returning officer must know that due procedure has been observed in the appointment of the proxy. Once it is cleared, the proxy could vote for the defence personnel. This is indeed a big step forward.

This amendment should ensurebetter participation fromdefence personnel. Now that they have got what they have been clamouring for, they must use it tomaximum advantage. As it is, the voting percentage in India is quite less for a variety of reasons. The armed forces should take this seriously.

Avinash Kolhe is a lecturer of Political Science at D G Ruparel College, Mumbai

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Number of User Comments: 3

Sub: Best Defence minister????

In this column the writer stated that George Fernandes is the Best defence minister India ever had. He must be joking, one who is accused ...

Posted by Girinath Managari

Sub: voting right

It should be made mandatory for all the graduates in India both male and female to vote until the age of 70 years. Those who ...

Posted by rammohan


It is an interesting article. At the first instance, the voting for defence forces through proxi is welcome. However, it is to be noted that ...

Posted by srihari



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