The Right to Vote, though not a Fundamental Right, is a Constitutional Right of every citizen guaranteed under Article 326 of the Indian Constitution. This right ought to be exercised by every responsible Indian citizen above the age of 18 as it provides the opportunity to choose representatives who will govern us as a nation and a state – we can therefore enjoy the benefits of good choices and suffer the consequences of bad ones. Sometimes, of course, none of the alternatives available may meet our aspirations or approval in which case one can exercise the ‘None of the above’ or NOTA option. The efficacy of such a choice is however, debatable but we will leave that discussion for another day.
My focus today is to urge every soldier to make his or her vote count. The right to vote is fortunately one of the rights a soldier still enjoys despite several other curbs on rights and freedoms. The Government on its part has made tremendous efforts to ensure that every citizen including all our soldiers, sailors and air warriors are able to exercise their franchise. However, one is not sure how seriously the soldiers are taking themselves on this count. There is a commonly held notion within and outside the uniformed establishment that the functioning of the armed forces is ‘Government-independent’ – and hence, the general indifference towards voting among soldiers is understandable to a degree. However, it has also created a widely held impression that the armed forces do not matter in electoral politics. It is nobody’s fault. It has just been that way and nothing could be farther from the truth.
Some basic statistics will place the matter in perspective. It is estimated that India’s General Elections 2019 will have about 900 million Indians in the electoral rolls. The Indian armed forces are about 1.4 million strong. If approximately 50% of them are married, that takes the number to about 2.1 million. Add a few more dependents who are eligible to vote and we are looking at a number of about 2.5 million, give or take a few thousands. In overall terms, it is 0.0028 per cent of the entire electorate and that is why neither the political wannabes nor the soldiers themselves think that they are important in the electoral calculations. The voting populations of Lok Sabha constituencies vary from about 47000 to 31 lakhs across India. Vidhan Sabha constituencies are much smaller. For example, Pune has 4 Lok Sabha constituencies but 33 Vidhan Sabha constituencies. It is obvious that smaller numbers of votes can matter significantly in smaller constituencies whereas larger constituencies need larger numbers to influence outcomes.
However, numbers by themselves tell an incomplete story. The armed forces are located either in concentrated areas in fairly large numbers or in smaller towns and cities where their presence in comparison to the local population can easily make a dent on electoral outcomes. For example, in cantonment areas, the armed forces will have numbers that local MLA aspirants simply cannot ignore. Similarly, in large stations or in smaller constituencies of far flung areas, soldiers can play a significant role in determining poll verdicts. This potential has not been realised so far for several reasons, which are thankfully being addressed now. However, more can be done.
The very first thing is to tell soldiers to take themselves seriously and along with all eligible family members, exercise their franchise without fail in every election. Next, each and every soldier, sailor and air warrior must register as a General Voter at his or her place of posting. This is the only way of ensuring that votes are cast physically. Registering as a Service Voter entitles the individual to a postal ballot which is procedurally somewhat cumbersome where a paper physically needs to move to the Returning Officer after a series of checks and verifications. The effectiveness of such a procedure is low. With online processing of enrolments, registering every soldier as a General Voter must be ensured within a month of each posting as a mandatory routine. There is also a need to bring the voting booth to the soldier. If this is done for the Shompens in Great Nicobar, where hardly anybody votes, there is no reason why voting by each soldier, wherever he or she is posted, cannot be positively ensured. The armed forces on their part, must ensure adequate time off is given to all on polling days so that every soldier can exercise his or her franchise. It would greatly help the cause if military voters in a particular station as well as their families and dependents are allocated just one or two constituencies where their votes could be concentrated. This would raise the stakes of both the electorate as well as the MP/MLA aspirants in ensuring growth and prosperity of the constituency.
The modern soldier is educated, tech savvy and aware of his rights and deprivations much more than his lesser interested predecessors ever were. If the right conditions are facilitated, soldiers would make informed choices based on a multitude of factors that affect their lives. The fact that they did not have decent weapons, clothing, housing, rations or were not adequately compensated for risk and hardship may well influence their decisions. More informed soldiers could well base their decisions on how well we may be doing on military readiness, procurements, civil-military relations, erosion of status vis-à-vis other government services and similar issues apart from other considerations of civil society. The soldier must become relevant in electoral mathematics.
So step out soldier – and ink your index finger!