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Will Soldiers Vote in Coming Elections?

By Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch(retd)
January 13, 2022 16:33 IST
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No Service Chief to date has had the guts to streamline the procedure in conjunction with the Election Commission and ensure every soldier votes in his/her place of posting, observes Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch (retd).

IMAGE: A soldier casts his vote in the Lok Sabha election at a Field Post Office in Siachen, April 11, 2019.
In a first-of-its-kind the Election Commission of India provided the facility to troops deployed in far flung, remote and inhospitable terrain to download their ballot papers online, vote and forward the ballot papers to their respective Electoral Returning Officers through post. Photograph: PTI Photo
 

The switching of parties by politicians has picked up pace after dates for he upcoming elections were announced.

The happenings in UP and Goa are just the beginning. This is the time to make instant bucks -- better than playing bitcoin.

Morality is passe in power-play and the bottom-line is that for the political class it is 'Vote First', all else is secondary.

Our bureaucrats (on whom politicians are dependent) hold soldiers in disdain.

Politicians dislike soldiers voting because they are 'apolitical' which upsets their vote calculations. But the only way the forces can earn their due place amidst the politico-bureaucratic skullduggery is to make soldiers vote compulsorily which is their fundamental right.

Three months before the UP elections in 2007, the Corps headquartered in Mathura informed the state government that troops of the Corps located in UP would vote in at the place of posting in accordance with the judgment of the Election Commission.

Concurrently some veterans sent an RTI to the local MLA and MP querying how they had helped families of serving soldiers and veterans in their area of jurisdiction and how had they contributed to the development of the military cantonments. There was no response to the RTIs.

The UP government tried to wriggle out by saying soldiers should get their voting cards made.

The Corps HQ responded that soldiers cannot be expected to make new voter cards at every station he/she is posted to and that UP should seek clarification from the EC.

Certified lists of soldiers serving in the station were also sent to the state authorities.

The result was that special booths manned by EC representatives were set up in the military cantonments.

Serving soldiers voted to show their 'Service Identity Cards' after EC representatives cross-checked their names with the list of voters provided to the state authorities.

No voter cards were used. That is what should be happening in all military stations.

Before the elections, the local MLA at Mathura came to meet the Station Commander with Rs 10 lakh, promised more, and queried if soldiers were ordered to vote for which political party.

The Station Commander returned the money and told him the army doesn't issue any such orders -- soldiers are free to vote for whoever they want to.

Concurrently, a second development was the opening of a special cell in the district collector's office in Mathura to look into the grievances of soldiers, veterans and their families.

Political parties requested permission to hold election rallies in cantonments.

This was denied, but they were allowed to put up posters in the civil market within cantonments.

At Allahabad, the army had won a case against an illegal colony in the cantonment.

When these encroachments were evicted, the local MLA complained to her party president in Delhi, who rang up the defence minister and an inquiry landed up in Allahabad.

But when the MLA discovered the division in Allahabad would vote in the UP elections, all allegations were withdrawn, the inquiry dissolved and she wanted to know when the GOC could have a meal with her.

After the elections, the MLA elected from Mathura came to meet the Station Commander and asked how he could help in the development of the cantonment by way of electricity, drainage, or whatever.

It may be said that soldiers in peace stations have voted in place of posting, but that is rare on the initiative of individual commanders -- not institutionalised.

What about soldiers in field areas? If he EC can send a polling party inside the Gir forest for a solitary voter, surely it can organise polling booths at the battalion headquarters level in field areas.

The excuse of all ranks to register as voters is used but impractical in far-flung areas where the Internet connection is only at battalion headquarters which too does not function properly due to poor connectivity. Postal ballots are unlikely to reach in time or maybe unfairly substituted.

In his article 'Army: Caught between Devil and Deep Blue Sea' published in 2018, Sudip Talukdar wrote: 'Army took long to recover from the humiliation of 1962 but 56 years later finds itself in a similar predicament facing open hostility and betrayal; what is radically wrong with a system to penalise soldiers who are staking their lives but meekly surrender to forces of rowdyism and vote-banks; what options do soldiers have after being slapped by FIRs, slurs by NGOs and sanctimonious media except to approach the Apex Court for justice, and; the nation must stand solidly behind the soldiers, else it could precipitate a crisis of unimaginable magnitude.'

Politicians may play the charade of celebrating a two-year-old surgical strike, but the defence ministry surgically strikes benefits of military personnel and continues to file appeals in Supreme Court against disabled soldiers and military widows.

The mad rush to plug the military's operational voids in wake of the Chinese aggression in 2020 is clear evidence of neglect of the military and matters military.

The onus is on the Service Chiefs of the 1.4 million military and within that primarily on the Army Chief because 1.2 million comprises the army.

The usual googly is that soldiers are free to vote and must register as voters, the implications of which have been explained above.

These excuses deny the fundamental right of serving soldiers to vote.

The requirement is to ensure the procedure is followed in the UP State elections during 2007.

Ironically, no Service Chief to date has had the guts to streamline the procedure in conjunction with the Election Commission and ensure every soldier votes in his/her place of posting.

Whether the present lot of Service Chiefs can muster the guts to do so is not known, but the following months will prove whether they place the soldiers under their command and respective Service over themselves or otherwise.

Lieutenant General Prakash Katoch, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC is a veteran of the Indian Army. The views expressed are personal.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com

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