Last election season, Devaki (name changed), a cook, was unable to visit her polling site in the morning due to her work. As she approached her polling location in the afternoon, she was furious to find out that a vote had already been cast on her behalf, and such was the case for everyone living in her neighborhood. She was promptly shooed away as booth level officials ate and drank in celebration of their party’s victory.
A recent BBC report estimates that of the 700 million Indians who are eligible to vote this year, only 400 million actually will. This figure places India alongside countries with the highest voter turnout rates, even higher than that of the United States. Still, it’s not enough. The number becomes insignificant when we consider all the dummy votes that were cast on behalf of people like Devaki, and in her case, she actually intended on casting her vote. But what about the other 300 million? Why have they cast away their vote instead of casting it?
My concern stems not only from the blatant rejection of democratic practice by officials, which has apparently now become prevalent, but primarily from those who decide not to vote, silently permitting such officials to continue these actions. When I shared my concern at hearing Devaki’s story with friends and family, I was told quite calmly that substitute votes cast on behalf of absent voters are mundane–no, expected– occurrences.
But partisan substitute voters cannot be entirely blamed for casting votes on our behalf when we do not care enough to cast our own votes. As citizens of a country that prides itself in being the world’s largest democracy, we all should ensure that such things do not continue to happen. If anything, we should view this as an obvious deterrent: allowing a stranger to cast a substitute vote is a clear breach of democratic principle and should instead compel people to have their voices heard. We should not sit back and accept this as the norm; rather, we must stand up against this violation of our rights.
It must be noted that there are a large number of people who do make use of their voter eligibility. But not enough. Indian historian and biographer Ramachandra Guha writes, “It is to the credit of democracy that millions of often poor and sometimes illiterate Indians vote freely and fairly. That said, the conduct of governments in India has tended to be capricious and arbitrary.” Ironically it’s a large portion of the educated middle and upper class, those who are taught the importance of voting, who do not care enough to vote. As The Hindu columnist T.C. A. Srinivasa-Raghavan writes, “[India’s] economic strength has meant the enlargement of the middle classes and the controlled political chaos has meant their gradual disengagement from the political process…they are beginning to stop looking to India to meet their needs.”
But it’s this complacency by the people that breeds corruption. When a large group of eligible voters don’t vote based on the notion that it (group)/they (voters) cannot change the status quo, the cronyism, bribery, and nepotism is bound to continue. It is a vicious cycle.
Furthermore,those who do not vote have no room to highlight party leaders’ shortcomings when they do not take the time to make a difference themselves. The claim that none of the running parties’ platforms is attractive to the educated voter is not a good enough excuse for the voter to keep from exercising his franchise, especially with rules such as the 49-O in place.
Section 49-O of the constitution allows voters to refrain from voting once they have identified themselves at the poll booth. Of course, noting the obvious drawback to this option–that the voter’s identity would be revealed and the voter may be pressured by partisan poll officers–the Election Commission is currently working to incorporate a “None of the Above” option on the electronic ballot itself which would give voters room to anonymously “vote to not vote” for any of the candidates.
So the government has tried to provide the people tools to conduct fair and free elections. Most recently, the push for voter identification cards with photos has been a step in the right direction, a way to avoid episodes such as those experienced by Devaki. But there is no point in the educated middle and upper class eligible voters obtaining a voter identification card if their only use for it is to obtain a passport to leave India.
And even if that’s where their interests lie, the NRI’s should still take interest in and demand a say in their government. This block of educated voters, as citizens of India and as the sons and daughters of that educated middle and upper class, should make their voice heard by petitioning the government through public interest litigation for absentee voting. Members of VoteIndia.in have already initiated an online petition, utilizing the Facebook and Orkut social networks to gain signatures. But this will not be enough. Serious action is needed for NRI’s to be legally equipped with the power to vote, and unless they ask for that power, they will not get it.
India has been blessed with a democratic government and it should not be taken for granted. Over time some voters have refused to raise their voices to be heard, thus the contesting parties, too, have stopped catering to these groups’ needs. Until these voters present themselves at the polls consistently, the political scene will continue to resemble a game of musical chairs.