Every general election nearly 14 lakh soldiers/sailors and airmen, 9 lakh personnel of the para-military forces and their families are effectively denied their basic democratic right to vote. Why can’t the Election Commission come up with a solution for this, asks Colonel (retd) Anil Athale.
The general elections are definitely in the air! Political temperatures are already rising and many expect the general elections to take place this winter. As the elections approach, one can almost predict the news coverage! There will be the usual model code violations, media criticism on a large number of criminals in the electoral fray, stories put out by the Election Commission how it has made herculean efforts to reach the remotest corners of the country even for a mere ten voters etc!
There will also be the usual procession of political bigwigs, surrounded by SPG and ‘Black Cats’ , coming to the polling booth to cast their votes! At the end of the day, the Election Commission will pat itself on the back for having prevented booth capturing and conducted this mammoth exercise.
Forgotten in all this will be close to 14 lakh soldiers/sailors and airmen, 9 lakh personnel of the para-military forces and their families. These uniformed citizens are effectively denied their basic democratic right to vote. The nature of their job is such that most of them (including this author) have managed to vote only after retirement.
While the EC takes great pride in reaching the remotest location, does it remember the 4,000 odd soldiers on Siachen Gacier? Are the unformed citizens children of lesser God? Has any of the ‘leaders’ in Z and Z Plus category ever asked their bodyguards if they have had a chance to vote? This author conducted a straw poll of around 20 odd soldiers in Pune on April 5. Out of them only two had managed to vote since they happened to be on leave during an election. Over 90 percent said in their entire career they have never received a postal ballot.
Even if a more extensive survey is conducted, it will reveal that just over 5 percent of soldiers have ever had a chance to exercise their democratic right. This scandalous state of affairs has existed for over 65 years. Contrast this with the length to which other democracies go to ensure the soldiers exercise their right to vote. In the midst of World War II, in 1945, the British had polling booths in jungles of Burma for their soldiers to vote.
This author had raised this very issue in June 2012. The only response to this was a list of excuses and a promise to ‘look into the issue’. This article is to reiterate those arguments and again bring this issue to light well before the electoral process begins so that the Election Commission does not have excuse of lack of time to carry out the necessary reforms.
It is not that the armed forces have not brought out this issue earlier. Talking to a former adjutant general, this author was told that the excuse of the EC for its inability to send postal ballots was due to the large ballot papers with tens of names etc. We have come a long way from the ‘paper ballot’ era with the electronic voting machines the norm now. Do the same ‘logistic’ reasons hold even today? How did the British do it in 1945? How do the Americans, with worldwide spread of its soldiers and other citizens do it? Is it not time that the EC learns from the experience of other democracies and adopts ‘best practices’!
The de facto ‘dis-enfranchisement’ of soldiers (sailors, air men, para-military personnel) begins with the voter registration/electoral list revision. A soldier at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, obviously cannot be present in his home in Jhumritallaiya. So a clerk who visits his home can easily delete his name! Matters become ever more curious if his family is staying in Guwahati. Now, no Assam government official visits the separated families’ accommodation to register them as voters in Assam (though our PM had his home address in that state). So the soldier who guards the country’s borders is not a good enough ‘citizen’ to vote.
There is a simple enough solution to this problem. Every soldier’s record and his identity card have clear mention of his permanent address. This is a part of government record, verified by local police at the time of recruitment/commissioning. The EC should accept this as the proof of residence and a simple application, sent to the EC headquarters, should ensure that the soldier is registered as a voter in the constituency. Having simplified the registration process, it should be possible that the EC will have the details of the soldier voter.
With advances in IT and the pioneering role played by India in having an ‘electronic voting system’, it should be possible for the EC to send its teams to the level of brigades during the election process. Here the soldiers can come personally and vote on a machine. Brilliant former CECs like T N Seshan, James Lyndoh, S Y Qureshi, who know the system can suggest ways that this can be accomplished. The process of voting need not wait for the date of general elections, but can begin even before. Like the US, it is time we also permit ‘early voting’.
This author is well aware that this is a cry in wilderness. The political ‘caste’ is not interested in letting the soldiers vote. This further complicates their ‘vote bank’ calculations. Has anyone ever wondered why a death of a single agitator in Kashmir valley is a big deal while six CRPF men being gunned down does not evoke any reaction!
The simple answer to this is that the politico’s know that the soldiers do not vote and are nobody’s vote bank, kind of political orphans. This is a serious issue that impacts the policies and actions of the governments. From neglect of martyred soldiers to lack of national war memorial or one rank one pension issue, the approach of political caste is dictated by the fact that there is no ‘vote’ to be gained in all this.
Can all this change? Surely, it can if the only credible institution of the country, the Supreme Court takes cognisance of the fact that the procedures/practices are effectively denying voting rights to uniformed persons, sort of what happens to Dalits in some part of the country, and directs the EC to take measures to rectify it. Will the apex court take suo moto notice of this issue and ask the EC a few questions like: