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VOTING RIGHT: POWER OF THE POWERLESS

S. K. Mendiratta*

Power of the Powerless’ presupposes the division of the society into two classes – Powerful and Powerless. The world ‘Power’ can be dissected into further classification such as political power, economic power and social power. The general belief or feeling is that the power – political, economic and social – is centered in the hands of a few who can be termed as powerful. But the moot question is whether the so-called powerless are really powerless. I do not think so – in so far as the sharing or enjoyment of political power in India is concerned, which, in my opinion, is the mother of all other powers and a really potent means to achieve those powers. In this Article, I propose to dilate on this aspect, namely, political power of the Power of the Powerless.

The Constitution of India proclaims that India is a Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic. Giving expression to the solemn resolve of the Constitution makers, the Preamble to the Constitution secures to all the citizens of India, among other things, Justice, Social, Economic and Political; and also Equality of status and of opportunity. The ‘Objective Resolution’ moved by Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru on 13th December, 1946 in the Constituent Assembly, which set out the agenda and goal of the Constituent Assembly, that Assembly declared its firm and solemn resolve, to inter alia, guarantee and secure to ‘all the people of India justice, social, economic and political; equality of status, of opportunity, and before the law; freedom of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship, vocation, association and action, subject to law and public morality’ and to provide adequate safeguards ‘for minorities, backward and tribal areas, and depressed and other backward classes’.

The foundation for such resolve of the Constituent Assembly was laid down, much earlier in 1928, by a committee under the Chairmanship of Shri Moti Lal Nehru, appointed at an all-party conference held in Bombay in May, 1928. Pandit Nehru in his inaugural address as the President of India National Congress at Lucknow session in 1936 further elaborated the point as under:-

“I am convinced that the only key to the solution of world’s problems and of India’s problems lies in socialism. Socialism is, however, something even more than an economic doctrine; it is a philosophy of life. I see no way of ending the poverty, the vast unemployment, the degradation and the subjection of the Indian people except through socialism.”

In the Indian scenario, it was Mahatma Gandhi who set the goal to wipe every tear from every eye. Gandhiji held that freedom is a mockery so long as men starved, were naked and pined away in voiceless anguish. Gandhiji’s fight for emancipation of Harijans will always be reckoned as the most glorious aspect of his fight for human rights and dignity.

Apart from socialism as envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, the founding fathers of the Constitution enshrined Democracy as one of the inalienable basic features of the Constitution of India. Democracy has been best defined by Abraham Lincoln as ‘Government of the people, for the people and by the people’. Democracy is thus the real empowerment of the people – both powerful as well as powerless.

In order that even the so-called powerless, who have been suffering for ages due to economic backwardness or social exploitation, untouchability and other evils which have plagued the Indian society on the grounds of caste, creed, race, religion, etc., are ensured justice and equality as enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution, the Constitution makers took the most historic step by providing in the Constitution, in Article 326, for ‘universal adult suffrage’ for choosing their representatives to the House of the People and State Legislative Assemblies. It was truly an historic decision and real empowerment of the powerless. By this decision, the Constitution also gave equal rights to women in the matter of their democratic rights, whereas, even in the West, the women were still struggling for such equality in the matter of their right to franchise. The most notable feature in this truly historic decision was the fact that an overwhelming majority, nearly 84%, of the people in India at the time of the adoption of the Constitution in 1950 were still illiterate, and mostly living in villages, and had not yet tasted the fruits of scientific and technological advancement.

Quite paradoxically, in the present day political scenario, the socially backward and economically weak are looked upon as powerless and seen as ‘vote banks’. But the mere fact that they are rewarded by the political parties as vote banks shows their real strength to turn the fortunes of many a stalwarts. All political parties try to woo them in their favour by various sorts of inducements in the form of new employment guarantee schemes, housing projects, financial subsidy and other grants and concessions. The too frequent elections in recent times at various levels – parliamentary, state, local – have in fact proved to be a boon for them, as that has brought the power seekers to their doorsteps.

Another significant step taken by the Constitution makers in ensuring equality of opportunity, was the provision in the Constitution, in Article 325, that there shall be one general electoral roll for all electors of a constituency and no person shall be ineligible for inclusion in any such roll or claim to be included in any special electoral roll for any constituency on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or any of them. But, at the same, the founding fathers of the Constitution were also not oblivious of the facts that some down trodden sections of the Indian society, that is to say, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, needed special protection and impetus for the amelioration of their social status and dignity. This was the motivating force for reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population, in the House of the People and State Legislative Assemblies. By the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution in 1992, even women have been given exclusive seats to the extent of 1/3rd of the seats in Municipal Corporations, Municipalities and Panchayats. A similar reservation for women in Parliament and State Legislatures is also being considered, and being agitated for, but an amicable formula for such reservation has so far eluded a consensus among the political parties and parliamentarians.

In order to ensure that the potent weapon or power given to the powerless under the Constitution in the form of their voting right at elections to Parliament and State Legislatures does not remain a mere paper provision, the Constitution has entrusted the duty of ensuring free and fair elections to the Election Commission of India. It is a permanent constitutional authority, insulated from the executive interference, so that it discharges its sacred constitutional responsibility of conducting free and fair elections, which is so vital for the democracy to flourish and deepen its roots. And the Election Commission, on its part, can take due credit and pride in the fact that it has faithfully discharged its sacred constitutional responsibility and fulfilled the aspirations of the teeming millions of the country. The results of the fourteen general elections to the House of the People and more than 300 general elections held to the State Legislative Assemblies have evidently demonstrated, not only the successful accomplishment of the task assigned to the Commission by the Constitution, but also the judicious way the so-called powerless people of the country have exercised their power of vote, showing their political maturity. Even the sitting Prime Minister of the country, and many a sitting Chief Ministers of the States, have suffered defeats and seen the fall of the mighty at the hands of these ‘Powerless’ people of the country when they used their real power of ballot in the not too distant past. On the other hand, the rise of the poor – humble sons of the soil, local school teachers and others lowly placed in the social order – to the highest elective offices in the country bears ample testimony to the power of ballot in the hands of the so-called powerless.

The Election Commission does everything within its powers and in its allotted domain to ensure that the power of vote to the powerless is exercised by them according to their own free will and judgement.

· By a constant and close watch on the preparation and revision of electoral rolls, every precaution is taken by the Commission to ensure that all eligible adult Indian citizens are brought on the electoral rolls and no eligible elector, particularly those belonging to weaker sections of the society, are excluded from the electoral rolls by any manipulations by the so-called powerful or political bigwigs.

· As a safeguard against any attempt to deprive the weaker sections of the society of their right to vote, the Election Commission has launched the scheme of Electoral Photo Identity Cards (EPICs), at the State cost, in all States and Union Territories and each elector is now allowed to vote only after his identity is properly checked and established by means of these EPICs or any other alternative documents specified by the Commission.

· The preparation of Photo Electoral Rolls containing the photos of the electors alongwith their other particulars is the next step in this direction.

· Polling stations are provided as near as possible, normally within a walking distance of not more than 2 Kms, to the hamlets, locality or villages of the weaker sections, so that they may not have to traverse long distances to go to their polling stations on the day of poll. In one case in Kerala, the Commission has provided a polling station in a remote area for just one elector, and in a few other far-flung places in the North-East, polling stations have been provided for just one family of four or five electors.

· In order that the electors of weaker sections are not prevented by use of muscle power by intimidation, coercion or physical violence from exercising their vote according to their free will and choice, the Commission deploys adequate police forces – particularly the Central Para Military Forces – in the areas inhabited by them – not only on static duty at polling stations but also for area domination and patrolling duties to instil a feeling of confidence and assurance in their minds.

· Observers are appointed by the Commission in each constituency to keep a close watch on the use of money power in poll expenses, so that the candidates even with moderate means can contest elections on a reasonably level playing field.

· The introduction of Electronic Voting Machines is another significant step taken by the Commission to make the voting right of the poor and illiterate more effective. These machines have made the recording of votes by them not only simpler but also error free, whereby each vote cast by them is duly recorded for the candidate of their choice and no vote goes waste, unlike in the past, by indistinct voting mark.

· Facilities are being provided in the voting machines to enable the visually impaired electors to vote by use of Braille; ramps are being provided at polling stations and, as far as practicable, all polling stations are being brought down to the ground level of the buildings housing the polling stations, to enable the physically handicapped electors to enter their polling stations.

· Awareness campaigns are being arranged and undertaken by the Commission to educate the electors, particularly those belonging to weaker sections of the society, about their rights, particularly the right to vote, under the Constitution.

· As part of electors’ right to information, all candidates are now required to disclose their criminal antecedents, if any, assets and liabilities and their educational qualifications, so that the electors can make an informed choice in the matter of exercise of their potent power of vote in their hands.

In nutshell, the Election Commission is not sparing any effort to see and ensure that the ‘Power of the Powerless’, that is to say, the right to vote, is made more powerful, effective and meaningful.

(PIB Features.)
*******

*Legal Consultant, Election Commission of India.

SS-77/SF-77/03-09-2013

RTS/HSN

PIB Aizawl

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