Pushing the envelope
This article was published under the headline “Pushing the envelope” in Hindustan Times on April 3, 2009
The Right and the Opportunity to Vote
When some American friends from my alma mater, the University of Texas at Dallas visited India in November, 2008, the conversation naturally led to the US elections and the fervour with which the candidates were campaigning. I was eager to know from my friends as to why they were in India on the day of the US elections and miss the opportunity to vote. I was extremely surprised to learn that they had already voted, as absentee voting was widely prevalent in the US.
The fact of the matter is that a large number of our citizens are not able to exercise their right to vote. For instance, there are no provisions in the Indian Law to enable millions of migrant workers, NRIs, students studying abroad, travelling business professionals, senior or unwell citizens, who may not be able to travel to the polling booth to exercise their right to vote in any alternative manner.
The right to vote under the Indian law flows from both the Constitution of India and the Representation of the People Act of 1950 and 1951. A citizen of India, who is 18 years of age, has a right to be registered as a voter in a constituency irrespective of his or her race, religion, caste or sex. Given the democratic aspirations of the citizens of India and India’s global standing as the world’s largest and one of the most vibrant democracies, there is a case for providing a stronger constitutional foundation for strengthening the right to vote.
The best practices that prevail in different parts of the world demonstrate that governments need to take substantial efforts to ensure greater participation of their citizenry in the electoral process. A number of developed countries implement various forms of absentee voting, such as internet voting (Switzerland, US, France etc.), proxy voting (Netherlands) and postal voting, which has emerged as the most popular form of absentee voting. People in countries such as the US, UK, Switzerland, Australia and some other countries have benefited by implementing postal voting with a view to providing greater access to the people towards exercising their right to vote.
India does implement a limited form of postal voting, but the regulation covers far few people to create a meaningful impact towards making the electoral process more inclusive. For instance, The Conduct of Election Rules 1961 in section 18(a) provides for a list of persons entitled to vote by post in a parliamentary or assembly constituency: special voters (For e.g. The President of India, Vice-President, Governors etc.); service voters (For e.g. armed forces, member of a force to which the army act applies, etc.); voters on election duty (For e.g. polling agent, polling officer etc.); and electors subjected to preventive detention. This provision provides for the right to vote for certain specified categories of persons in India, but still leaves out a large number of people who have difficulties in exercising their right to vote. In an amendment to the Representation of People Act, 1951 in 2003, section 60(c) provided for enabling: “…any person belonging to a class of persons notified by the Election Commission in consultation with the Government to give his vote by postal ballot…” While this provision clearly provides scope for the recognition of a “class of persons” to be entitled to exercise their right to vote by way of postal ballot, it has been used in the past for a limited number of cases concerning migrants from Jammu and Kashmir, and Bru and Reang tribal migrants from Mizoram and Tripura for allowing them to vote through postal ballot.
A large number of Indian citizens for a variety of reasons including travel, illness, disability and personal difficulties including education, employment and other innumerable reasons may not be able to physically be present on the day of the elections in the constituencies where their vote is registered. In the true spirit of Indian democracy, it is imperative that we now expand the postal ballot system to include all Indian citizens, to exercise their right to vote by post.
Of course, any such expansion will need to carefully consider the issues relating to security and integrity of the electoral process, need for ensuring secret ballot, availability of checks and balances that will ensure the proper implementation of the postal ballot system, efforts to reduce and progressively eliminate the abuse of the postal ballot system, complexity of the logistics and other manpower and resources requirements of the Election Commission of India and other state electoral apparatuses for implementing a larger postal ballot system in addition to many other legal and policy issues. But these challenges, formidable as they are, should not discourage us as a mature democracy from moving towards developing a wider framework for implementing the right to vote through postal ballot system and other policies and practices that will increase the political participation of people in the electoral process of this country. The problems of implementing a more inclusive postal ballot system and the potential abuse of absentee voting should not deter us from ensuring that the right to vote of every Indian citizen is duly enforced.
The purpose of this effort is to make the electoral process in India far more inclusive and far less cumbersome, such that each and every Indian is able to exercise not only the right to vote, but also have the opportunity to vote.
Mr. Naveen Jindal is a Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha) representing Kurukshetra Constituency in Haryana.