The Indian sub-continent is one of the largest democracies in the world that bestows upon its citizens the opportunity to elect their representatives in the government. This system of Universal Adult Franchise allows every adult to cast his/her vote and to voice an opinion. Even though in India the right to vote failed to find a place under the Fundamental Rights and Directives Principles of the Constitution of India, yet it is still an important tool in the hands of a common man. But is this privilege enjoyed by each and every citizen of India to the same extent and in the same manner? What about those courageous, sacrificing and fearless soldiers who invest their life and youth at the national borders protecting the country and its citizens against any foreign aggression? Do they have a right to vote?
The truth is a majority of members of the armed forces have never voted during the tenure of their service and only got the opportunity to exercise this right after retirement. If all the defence personnel in the four wings- army, navy, air force and coast guard are taken into record then there is a considerable amount of vote bank which is left untapped. Most of the times, the nature of their job, which includes posting to remote locations in the country, is taken as an excuse for not reaching out to them. However, this does not imply that there is no existing system for the defence personnel which allow them to participate in the voting process. If they are unable to vote in person, they can do so either through postal ballot system or through proxy voting which was introduced in 2003.
Since the first general election till 2003, service voters which include members of the armed forces who were on duty, could only cast a vote through the postal ballot system. The procedure designed for postal ballot laid down under the Conduct of Elections Rules, 1961 is extremely inconvenient and cumbersome. Since the system not only involves printing, dispatching and delivering of postal ballot papers to eligible voters but also receiving them back in time before the counting is done in order to remain valid, is perpetually associated with delays, it makes the whole system ineffectual and unworkable. Votes by only a handful of soldiers reach back while most give up in utter frustration. Due to some inherent deficiencies the postal ballot system has failed to achieve the objective for which it was introduced in the Indian Voting System.
Later, in 2003 the enactment of The Election Laws (Amendment) Act 2003 introduced proxy voting system in India. Under proxy voting system, a service voter (in this case being the defense personnel) may nominate any person to act as a proxy and to cast a vote on his/her behalf. The proxy need not be a registered voter but he/she must not be disqualified to be registered voter as well. A proxy voter will remain appointed unless the appointment has been revoked or the proxy dies or a new proxy has been appointed. Also, the service voter will have the option to revert back to postal ballot system any time he wishes. Unfortunately, even this system failed to ensure full participation of the Indian Jawans in the election process since most of the soldiers are unaware about such provision. Also, the system has been subjected to severe criticism since it does not ensure secrecy of vote which is the spirit of the universal adult suffrage. Apart from that, it also does not guarantee whether the real choice of the voter will be respected and the proxy will not fall victim to any outside influence.
Recently, while deciding over the question of formulating a fresh mechanism to enable voting by armed forces personnel, the Supreme Court of India took note of the existing drawbacks in both the postal ballot and proxy voting system and has sought a response on this from the Election Commission. A number of suggestions have come up asking for establishment of a mechanism which would enable the armed forces personnel to register as voters in the area of their posting. Also, at the time of polling proper arrangements should be made of either having an online polling system or having polling booths within the Cantonment areas which must be done after taking into consideration the unique nature of the services in which the jawans are engaged.
The right to vote is the right to express opinion and choice and in a country of more than 1 billion with the world’s third largest military force of approximately 1 million, every vote counts. Hence, it is important to bring the defence forces within the electoral system and to allow them to actively and fully participate in it like ordinary citizens with a responsibility of not just defending the nation but also electing the right people who would run the nation.
About the Author
Supreet is a lawyer by profession with special interest in the field of Environmental Law and Sustainable Development. In order to pursue her passion of helping others she quit her job and took on volunteering. She is currently a UN online volunteer and works with multiple non-profit organisations in the field of peace and security, environment and social justice. She loves writing, dreaming and reading fairy tales. She is a creative person and can vouch for her love for origami.