Right of Voting in India: The Right upon which all other Rights depend

Voting means the ability of a person to cast his choice in form of a ballot to choose his representatives. Voting encaptures within its realm the social, political, economic, administrative, and even spiritual aspirations of the voter and his/her preference for a candidate. It is in this right of voting that becomes all the more crucial particularly in a democratic setup that underlines the government of the people, for the people, and by the people.

“The right of voting for representative is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another and he that has not a vote in an election is in this case”Thomas Paine

The above lines by political thinker Thomas Paine aptly capture the importance of voting as the fundamental right of a human being.

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Image: Right of Voting in India

Right of Voting in India has its historical background:

If we walk back the steps into Indian history we find that deliberations and discussion were a part of our political set up right from the Vedic age where Sabhas and Samitis were the advisory bodies to the ruler. Although the rule was hereditary, yet concerns of people could be voiced via these Samities with the involvement of women and elders.

The Mahajanpadas that followed were the first Republics in Indian history producing efficient kings like Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka, Bimbisara, etc. The Chola kingdom of South India was known for the autonomy of local panchayats.

The Delhi sultanate and Mughals in medieval India were monarchies and autocrat rules, but aberrations in the form of Akbar did exist who allowed consultative processes to flourish and worked for the welfare of the masses. There were systems of hearing public complaints in Diwane-e-Aam and taking action against corrupt Mansabdars and official.

British Raj and limited Franchise:

The beginning of modern history with the British Raj witnessed limited franchises (limited on basis of property and literacy levels). Due to this limited franchise, the Britishers were able to completely exploit India and its people converting it from a land of exporter of finished goods to an exporter of raw materials and importer of British finished goods. The absence of the Right of voting entered our social, political, and economic exploitation in the form of ‘Drain of wealth’ (as propounded by Dadabhai Naoroji), suppressive laws like the Rowlatt Act, Jalliawala Bagh massacre. Little rights for women and vulnerable sections. Our Nationalist leaders understand this very well and due to their continuous efforts, the scope of franchise expanded slowly and steadily with acts like the Government of India Acts 1909,1919,1935 and finally culminated in the India independence Act in 1947.

Gandhiji had said, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history”.

Gandhiji realized the power of the masses and voting as a tool to gain Independence. Even Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had underscored the importance of voting as “It is not enough to be electors only. It is necessary to be lawmakers; otherwise those who can be lawmakers will be masters of those who can be electors”.

India and World: Right of Voting

Though our Constitution was inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution (Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity), the American Revolution (Bill of Human Rights), England’s Magna Carta, etc, still we gave our voting right a universal outlook. Women in France and the USA were granted voting in the 1960s, while India granted a universal franchise in 1947 itself.

Right of Voting and Indian Constitution:

Our Constitution makers realized the importance of voting. Hence post-independence India became one of the first countries in the world to adopt a Universal Adult Franchise. Granting every citizen the right to cast vote irrespective of caste, creed, gender, race, etc.

Right to Vote was incorporated in Article 326, making it a constitutional right. The Representation of Peoples Act 1950 also guarantees the voting rights to all citizens above the age of 18 years. It is also a duty of all citizens to participate in the voting process to make their voices heard.

All the Fundamental Rights and Constitutional Rights directly or indirectly emanate from the Right to Vote. The principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Rule of Law, Equality before the law, Secular state, Right to Life and personal liberty, freedom of speech and expression, social justice, etc all rest upon the integrity and accountability of the state. All the three organs- legislature, executive, and Judiciary, who make laws, implement and adjudicate these respectively have to be ultimately accountable to the masses. The ballet is more powerful than the bullet and the mandate of people is the touchstone on whose foundation a vibrant democracy rests.

Role of various stakeholders

Here the role of various stakeholders must be high lighted. Pressure Groups, civil society, political parties, media including social media, etc play an important role in consensus building and shaping the aspirations of people who decide this voting pattern. Each actor must add on constructively to the opinions of people, without creating hatred, biases, or using unfair means. The civil society’s role must be to develop an informed and proactive citizenry and spread awareness about the value of a vote in choosing representatives and ultimately policymaking.

The political parties must clearly spell out their ideology, structure, function in their manifestos and not mislead people, neither indulge in hate-mongering and empty rhetorics. The media is the fourth pillar of democracy and the prime source of information dissemination to the people.

Both print and electronic media must refrain from sensationalization, broadcasting paid news, showing biased opinion polls, broadcasting hate and communal speeches, etc. Instead, they should try to show a complete picture with equal coverage to all parties’ policies.

Election commission of India and the regulations:

The most important agent of Elections in India is the Election commission of India which acts as an independent, fair neutral regulator and conducts central and state elections. ECI ensures free and fair elections, prevents the use of muscle and money power, regulates misuse of state power by ruling dispensation, implements model code of conduct, and ensures awareness generation for increased participation. But recent cases of booth capturing in Tamil Nadu assembly elections as well as misuse of freebies in Bihar elections have highlighted the need to give more teeth to ECI along with more punitive powers.

Making a model of conduct statutory and bringing political parties under the Right to Information Act are also certain suggestions mooted by experts to strengthen the election systems.

Role of the Judiciary in the Promoting Right of Voting:

The role of the judiciary in strengthening the voting rights of the citizens also cannot be underestimated. The introduction of NOTA (none of the above) option on EVMs by the apex court was a watershed moment in our election history. It was a sign of rejection of all political parties and a sign of sovereignty and supremacy of the people.

Similarly canceling the elections of candidates found to be indulged in booth rigging and capturing and dering repolls in areas marred by violence or cheating also highlight the reputation of the judiciary to enhance transparency in elections.

Barring convicted candidates from contesting and making it compulsory for the candidate to show their assets and liabilities highlights the importance attached to upholding a clean political system in minds of people.

Legislation to Strengthen Right of Voting:

Another milestone in the victory of grassroots democracy in India was the enactment of the 73rd and 74th amendment acts (1993) giving constitutional status to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and urban local bodies (ULBs) along with regular mandatory elections entrusted with the state election commission.

It also mandated at least 33% reservation to women in PRIs and ULBs furthering the principle of gender equality and women empowerment. The PESA extended voting rights to scheduled areas and gave the locals and tribals the right to micro-manage their resources.

The recent legislation by Rajasthan and Haryana mandating certain pre-conditions like educational qualifications, having functional tie lets, capping no. of children, etc although passed in informative spirit had negative fallouts leaving a large section of the population outside the eligibility criteria to stand in elections. Such laws must be brought about in a phased and top-down manner (meaning first MPs -MLAs local bodies)

While voting rights ensure political democracy, many gaps remain in areas of social and economic democracy. One vote one value will be rendered meaningless if the divide between the has and have nots is widening in the society. The vulnerable sections of women, SC, ST, minorities, elders, rural landless farmers, urban laborers, LGBTs, differently-abled, etc must be streamlined in our socio-political setup. So that their vote really counts.

The recent Bihar elections showed that women’s turnout was much higher (70%) as compared to males, which shows that women are much more concerned about the problems playing the society in general and women in particular. Similarly, high youth turnout in the 2014 Lokshabha elections highlighted the vigilance and proactive nature of India’s young demography. The successful elections and high turnout in North East, Jammu, and Kashmir, Left-wing extremist areas, remote-inaccessible areas show the highly spirited voters and the celebration of elections as a festival of democracy in India.

Role of Candidate profile:

The candidate profile also has to be highlighted here. It is rather unfortunate that even after seven decades of independence, in some areas, the majority of candidates are illiterate, use muscle/money power, and are convicted of crimes. Moreover social engineering, communal cards, liquor distribution, etc are being used by parties to woo the voters. Mud slinging on opposition parties to gain brownie points is also common.

Informed Right of Voting

Important lessons can be learned in this regard from the west where informed debates between candidates shape public opinions. Although educational qualification is no guarantee of good administration, yet educated leaders instill confidence and promote innovative policy formulation.

To make voting more efficient and effective, social media can be used constructively to mobilize the masses, particularly youth on the importance of voting. The republic day parade of 2016 had a special tableaux by ECI showcasing the use of EVMs and EPIC by ECI. The participation of blind and other divyangs, leprosy patients etc also highlight the social equity that can be seen in the booth. It instills a feeling of social justice among the masses, which is a pre requisite to economic peosperity.

Type of election system in India

Another point of debate is the type of election system. India follows the First past the post system wherein the party with the majority of the vote share comes to power. Critics argue that this leads to vote bank politics. A mix of proportional representation and PPTP is here worth trying for.

Importance Voting as a right

Voting as a right is not only important for the US as national citizens but also as global citizens. The rising demands for democratization of the United Nations Security Council, IMF voting rights, World Bank voting right highlight this fact. The north-south divide has led to more weightage been given to the developed countries and therefore denial of due rights to developing countries. The establishment of BRICS Bank, AIIB, etc as a counter to IWF and UB bear testimony to this fact.

Concluding: Right of Voting

Therefore one argues that voting is the cornerstone of any political setup (democratic or otherwise). Some recent reports highlight the high satisfaction of people in democracies and their faith in transparent election systems. And as Martin Luther King puts it,” And so we shall have to register more than a vote, we shall have to create leaders who embody virtues we can respect who have moral and ethical principles we can applaud with enthusiasm”

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