Free and fair elections are the very bedrock of democracy, where no group is disadvantaged in any manner or denied, by subterfuge, coercion or any other devious design, the basic right to vote fearlessly and in accordance with the individual choice. For this, the Constitution of India has tasked Election Commission (EC) and laid down the rules of the game in the Representation of the People Act, 1950 and 1951.
The EC has to operate within the framework of the Act. Yet in the case of serving defence personnel, the successive ECs have deviated deliberately from what the Act lays down.
The Act, in unequivocal terms, states that: "Any person having service qualification shall be deemed to be ordinary resident on any date in the constituency, but for his having such service qualification, he would have been ordinary resident on that date (Part 111, Section 20, subsections (3), (5) and (8))."
The Act defines "service qualification", which means being member of the armed forces of the Union (Part 111, Section 20, subsections (3), (5) and (8)).
The wife of such a soldier when residing with him too will be considered "ordinary resident" in that constituency. Changes in the provisions of the Act can be made only by the government in consultation with the EC.
However, every Election Commission has violated this provision and denied the soldier his right to partake in the electoral process of the country, in whose defence he stands committed and, when required, to even to lay down his life.
The EC has comprised retired and tired bureaucrats invariably, who have been carrying forward the bureaucratic bias against the defence services and disadvantaging them in whatever manner possible.
Successive ECs have continued to misinterpret the Act to exclude, to the extent possible, the defence forces from full participation in this democratic process.
To circumvent this provision in the Act and acting on their own and with no legal provision, the successive ECs have been applying the "postal ballot" rule, given in the Act, to defence personnel, though this provision is applicable only in the case of Indians citizens living or posted abroad and to those under preventive detention.
When the illegality in the applicability of the postal ballot for defence personnel was pointed out, a committee of secretaries was constituted, which after deliberating over the issue for three years, came up with the proposal of "proxy voting" for defence personnel.
Vide subsection (b) (i and ii ) of Section 60 in Chapter 1V, proxy voting cannot be made applicable to defence personnel.
In 1996, for nearly 15 lakh defence personnel, only 2.7-lakh ballot papers were received at the record offices and the figure dropped to 2.6 lakh in 1997. Of these dismal figures, the number of ballot papers that reached their final destination eventually to be counted in the constituency of permanent residence has never been disclosed.
Considering the limited time available between the announced of the elections and the polling date, and the time it takes for the ballot paper to travel the full circle, only a few ballot papers would have come to be counted.
Further there is nothing in the Act that enjoins the Election Commission staff at the constituency to dispatch the ballot papers on time to the individual's record office.
When the case came up before the Supreme Court, the EC tried to defend the indefensible; and on being cornered completely, brought in the condition of three-year stay at the place, as also it would encourage political parties to seek campaigning right in cantonments and further allowing soldiers to vote in the remote areas would change the demographic complexion of that place dramatically.
These were all fallacious arguments and highlighted merely the deep-seated bias of the EC against the defence services. Surely, Election Commission would have known about the turbulence in an Indian soldier's life, and that he is rarely at the same station for more than two years.
The court asked for the basis of fixing the three-year rule for service personnel, to which the EC had no answer.
In a remote area, a particular number of defence personnel are there permanently and have a stake as ordinary residents in its development and removal of irritants that alienate the local population, because the defence personnel will have to face the fallout finally of this alienation.
In cantonments, there are civil areas where political parties can be allowed to hold rallies etc., and the military personnel who wish to attend can do so in civil dress.
The Supreme Court was constrained to remark that: "It is a strange situation. On the one hand, the EC wants every adult to be registered as a voter and encourages 100% voting, but on the other hand, it has taken a stand that deprives lakhs of armed forces personnel of their precious right to vote."
The Supreme Court was constrained equally to point out that the EC approach was obstructionist.
For more than six decades, the successive ECs have been violating the Act by devising a method that ensured that defence personnel are denied their right to vote.
This has kept the political class oblivious of the problems of defence personnel, and as such it could make no effort to remedy the ills confounding them. It is time that the new government lays down the "rules of conduct" for the EC as well as review the method of selection.
(The writer, former deputy chief of the army staff, is a commentator on security and defence issues. Views expressed are personal.)