Just and fair elections are the very bed rock of democracy, where no group or groups of people are disadvantaged in any manner or denied this basic right, by subterfuge or through coercion or any devious design, to cast vote and vote fearlessly and in accordance with the individual choice. For this the Constitution of India has tasked the Election Commission ( here after E C ) and rules of the game laid down in Representation of Peoples Act 1950 and Representation of Peoples Act 1951,( here after called Act.)
The Election Commission has to operate and carry out its functions strictly in accordance and within the framework of the Act.
Successive E Cs have continued to misinterpret the provisions of the Act to exclude, to the extent possible, and thus deny the defence forces from fully participating in this democratic process.
Yet in the case of serving defence personnel, the successive E Cs have deliberately deviated 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) of the Act ) The Act defines ,’service qualification’ which means being member of armed forces of the Union. ” ( Part 111, Section 20, subsections (3), (5) and (8) of the Act. ) 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 E C.
However every E C has been violating 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 E C has invariably consisted of retired and tired bureaucrats who have been carrying forward, the bureaucratic bias against the defence services and have disadvantaged them in whatever manner possible. Successive E Cs have continued to misinterpret the provisions of the Act to exclude, to the extent possible, and thus deny the defence forces from fully participating in this democratic process. To circumvent this provision in the Act and acting on their own and with no legal provision, the successive E Cs have been applying the ‘postal ballot,’ provision given in the Act, to defence personnel, though this provision is applicable only in the case of Indians citizens living abroad and or posted abroad and lastly to those under preventive detention.
When the illegality in the applicability of postal ballot for defence services personnel was pointed, 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 Sub section (b) (i and ii ) of Section 60 in Chapter 1V, proxy voting cannot be made applicable to defence personnel.
In 1996 out of nearly 1.5 million defence personnel only 2.7 lakh ballot papers were received by the record Offices of defence personnel and this figure dropped to 2.6 lakh in 1997. Out of these dismal figures the number of ballot papers that eventually reached their final destination to be counted in the constituency of their permanent residence, has never been disclosed. Considering the limited time available from the time elections are announced and the polling date and the time it takes for the ballot paper to travel the full circle, extremely few ballot papers would have come to be counted. Further there is nothing in the Act, which enjoins the election commission staff at the constituency to dispatch the ballot papers on time to the individual’s Record Offices.
Supreme Court was constrained to remark that, “It is a strange situation. On the one hand E C 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 their precious right to vote.”
When the case came up before the Supreme Court, the E C tried to defend the indefensible and on being completely cornered, it brought in, the condition of three years stay at the place, as also it would encourage political parties to seek campaigning right in cantonments and further by allowing them to vote in remote areas, it would dramatically change the demographic complexion of that place. These were all fallacious arguments and merely highlighted the, deep seated bias of the E C, against the defence services. Surely the Election Commission would have known of the turbulence in an Indian soldier’s life, in that he is rarely in the same station for a period of more that two years. However the Hon’ble court asked for the basis of fixing three years rule for service personnel to which E C had no answer.
In the so called remote area, X number of defence personnel are permanently there and have a stake in that area as ordinary residents: in its development and removal of irritants which alienate the local population of those areas, because it the defence personnel who have to finally face the fall out of such alienation. In cantonments there are civil areas where political parties can be allowed to hold their rallies etc, and military personnel, who wish to attend, can do so in civil dress.
Supreme Court was constrained to remark that, “ It is a strange situation. On the one hand E C 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 their precious right to vote.” The Supreme Court was equally constrained to point out that the E C was adopting an obstructionist approach.
For over six decades, successive E Cs have been violating the Act by devising a method which 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 E C as well and review, their method of selection.