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Pushing the envelope

india Updated: Apr 02, 2009 21:52 IST
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When some friends from my alma mater, the University of Texas, Dallas, visited India last November, the conversation veered towards the US elections. I was eager to know why they were missing the opportunity to vote. I was surprised to learn that they had already voted, for absentee voting is prevalent in the US.

The fact of the matter is that many of our citizens are not able to exercise their right to vote. For instance, there are no alternate voting provisions in our law to enable millions of migrant workers, NRIs, students studying abroad, travelling business professionals, senior or unwell citizens, who may not be able to go to the polling booth, to vote.

The right to vote under the Indian law flows from both the Constitution and the Representation of the People Act of 1950 and 1951, respectively. An 18-year-old citizen of India has the right to be registered as a voter in a constituency. Given our democratic aspirations and global standing as the world’s largest democracy, there is a case for providing a stronger constitutional foundation for strengthening the right to vote.

The best practices prevailing in the world demonstrate that governments need to make efforts to ensure greater participation of their citizenry in the electoral process. Many developed countries have implemented alternative forms of absentee voting like internet voting (Switzerland, the US, France etc), proxy voting (The Netherlands) and postal voting, which has emerged as the most popular form of absentee voting. People in countries like the US, Britain, Switzerland and Australia have benefited by implementing postal voting with a view to providing greater access to the people.

India does implement a limited form of postal voting but the regulation covers very few people to create a meaningful impact on making the electoral process more inclusive. For instance, The Conduct of Election Rules 1961, in section 18(a), provides a list of people entitled to vote by post in a parliamentary or Assembly constituency: special voters (the President of India, Vice-President, Governors etc.), service voters (armed forces, member of a force to which the Army Act applies etc), voters on election duty (polling agent, polling officer etc), and electors subjected to preventive detention.

However, this provision still leaves out a large number of people who have difficulties in voting. In 2003, an amendment to the Representation of the People Act, 1951, section 60(c), provided for enabling: “…any person belonging to a class of persons notified by the Election Commission in consultation with the Government to give his vote by postal ballot…” Still, this provision has sparingly been used in the past, concerning migrants from Jammu and Kashmir and Bru and Reang tribal migrants from Mizoram and Tripura for allowing them to vote through postal ballot. In the true spirit of democracy, it is imperative that we now expand the postal ballot system to include all Indian citizens.

Any such expansion will, of course, need to carefully consider many issues, including those related to security and integrity of the electoral process, ensuring secret ballot, availability of checks and balances for proper implementation of the postal ballot system, efforts to reduce the abuse of the postal ballot system, complexity of the logistics and other state electoral apparatuses for implementing a larger postal ballot system, apart from legal and policy issues.

But these formidable challenges should not discourage us, as a mature democracy, from moving towards developing a wider framework for implementing the right to vote through postal ballot and other policies that will increase the participation of the people in the voting process.

The aim of this effort is to make the Indian electoral process far more inclusive and less cumbersome, so that every Indian is able to exercise not only the right to vote, but also have the opportunity to vote.

Naveen Jindal is a Lok Sabha MP