In a country where ‘booth-capturing’ and open intimidation of voters used to be a part of the poll processes until not very long ago -- and remains a factor even now – postal vote can challenge the very credibility of the electoral process as a whole, says N Sathiya Moorthy.
The ruling Trinamool Congress’s call for the Election Commission (EC) to revoke the decision to introduce postal voting for those above 65 years, citing the Covid-19 pandemic as the reason, has to be taken seriously, without associating it only with the radical image of party boss and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
For, such a decision, taken unilaterally or otherwise, can become decentralised ‘booth-capturing’ by another name, especially in constituencies with unequally-resourced candidates and/or where victory margins are expected to be narrow on poll-eve.
In its missive to the EC, the Trinamool Congress has pointed out how six per cent of the electorate fall under the 65-year-plus ‘senior citizens’ category. As an aside, the TMC has also pointed out how Prime Minister Narendra Modi and at least 13 chief ministers had crossed the age-mark, and how they all could contest elections, campaign for their party candidates but still may not be able to vote in the polling booth under the proposed rules.
What the TMC did not say was how a senior citizen candidate could contest the election, visit the polling-booth where he is a voter, whenever and for whatever reason on the polling day, but cannot vote there. It is another matter that as candidates, they could seek ‘postal ballot’ at times, but cannot stand in the booth-queue afterwards.
Ahead of the TMC, CPI-M’s Sitaram Yechury, followed by the Congress and the CPI, have flagged the issue of the EC taking a unilateral decision in the matter. In a subsequent letter to the EC, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, where assembly polls are due later this year, too has pressed the case for ‘broad consensus-building’ before any such decision is taken.
The EC’s motives cannot be questioned in this regard. What, however, is questionable is the unilateral decision that it has taken. First, there was and is no consultation as such with political parties, the real stake-holders in the matter. But even more crucial to the process is the voter, and there is no way to hold such ‘consultations’ with him, given the sheer numbers involved.
The only proven way is to either have the legislature pass the relevant law, and /or have the higher judiciary to attest such a proposal, if and when challenged.
The possibility of a voter above 65 challenging the decision between the day the EC formally announces its decision in the matter and the day the elections are notified cannot be ruled out, either.
Under the Constitution, once elections are notified, the process cannot be questioned until after the results are announced. Or, can they be challenged, if the procedure is not in conformity with the existing laws, rules and practices? That will again be for the courts to decide, if and when challenged.
The larger question is not about the legal procedures, but even more about implementing such a practice. It is true that senior citizens are more vulnerable to Covid-19 pandemic, or that is the medical advice. However, in some instances, this age factor is yet to be statistically established for courts to take an unemotional view of things.
But in a country where ‘booth-capturing’ and open intimidation of voters used to be a part of the poll processes until not very long ago -- and remains a factor even now – postal vote can challenge the very credibility of the electoral process as a whole. In situations where family members and local party biggies can influence the senior citizen, it will mean that he could not cast his vote on his or her free will.
The entire electoral process can become farcical under Indian conditions especially, if the current thinking crystallises in the form of e-vote of whatever kind, for all age groups. There again, the role of the family and local dadas can be taken for granted, especially in a male-dominated society. Whatever the combo, in all such cases the voter would not have been emotionally influenced or physically threatened, to fall in line.
Then there is the inevitable question of access to a computer, which will impact polling in rural and inaccessible areas, manifold. One real possibility is for political party cadres to roam around with a laptop, and frighten the voters to cast their lot, to the candidate of their choice. It is even more likely that the cadres would collect a bunch of the required details (which anyway they will have) and cast the vote of others, from their own residences, ten, hundred or a thousand at a time.
But in the immediate context of the Bihar assembly polls later this year, and may be for another year or so, when a series of assembly elections, including in West Bengal in due, there is the inevitable question of low voter turnout, owing to the Covid threat in the polling booths. It is becoming increasingly evident that if senior citizens are more susceptible, others at times feel even more threatened.
Their role as bread-winners, male or female, can be among the factors influencing their mindset. Unless fully normalcy is restored, and people start attending offices, children begin going to schools and colleges, and public transport and pre-Covid shopping moods are restored, there is nothing to suggest that voters, whatever their age group, will gain adequate confidence, to do their bidding on polling day.
The situation can be expected to worsen especially if the EC and the state/district administrations were to impose additional restrictions on campaign time and methods. The role of the campaign mood in kicking up voter enthusiasm in Indian conditions cannot be questioned. This again cuts across all age groups, and not just the senior citizenry.
Even without the pandemic, statistical analyses have shown that in most states, urban centres record lower poll percentages than rural areas. The case of Tamil Nadu, the highest and fastest urbanising state in the country, needs to be studied closer to find out if the larger spread of coronavirus across the state owes the urbanising philosophy, as well. If so, political parties claiming larger urban base compared to their counterparts too may have a thing coming if the ‘Covid mood’ fails to melt away as it came, in time for the polls -- now, or later.
N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.