Why does the soldier not vote?
Posted:Jun 28, 2013 

Spotlight: By Lt Gen (Retd) Vijay Oberoi

In the world’s largest democracy, which also boasts of the third largest army in the world, the bulk of officers and men of the Indian Military do not vote. How incongruous and what a blot on the democratic ethos of the country!

But why does the soldier not vote?

There are two broad reasons for this state of affairs. Firstly, our political leadership, never entirely comfortable with the military, did not give much thought to voting by military personnel after Independence. The system prevalent during WW II, viz. ‘postal ballot’ was continued without realizing that it was an incongruous system for a democracy because these ballots seldom reached in time to be valid. I was one who tried voting by postal ballot but gave up in frustration as a wasted effort.

The second reason for the soldiers not voting was internal to the military. The military hierarchies became so wedded to the word “apolitical”, which was and continues to be an article of faith with the Indian military, that they convinced themselves, naively, that voting by serving personnel would mean that the armed forces had become ‘political’! This was a result of not fully understanding the meaning of being “apolitical”. An individual or a group or an institution gets politicized when they align themselves to either a political leader or a political party and then toe their line.  Being aware of political events does not make one not “apolitical”, just as reading communist literature does not make one a communist! It also needs to be highlighted that voters are supposed to vote for individuals and not political parties. All military personnel must cast their votes, for voting can never result in losing one’s “apolitical” status.

It was in the last decade that the Election Commission, as part of refining our electoral system observed that “In successive elections it has been observed that only a minuscule number of service personnel are registered as voters and only a very small percentage of service voters are able to exercise their franchise on timely receipt of their postal ballots. With reduction of campaigning period to 14 days, the system of voting by postal ballots has become almost impractical for the service voters.”

 Consequently, the system of proxy voting was introduced by enacting The Election Laws (Amendment) Act 2003. This legislation amended sections 04 and 60 of the Representation of the People Act,1951 and section 171(d) of the Indian Penal Code1860. Thereafter in 2009, the Election Commission also clarified that military personnel could be enrolled as general voters at the place of their posting, and added that: "It is desirable that no member of the Armed Forces should remain unregistered as a voter and that all service personnel, including those posted in far flung areas, are made aware under their preferred category. A proactive approach is to be adopted to achieve this, with commanders playing a vital role in educating the troops about the importance of adult franchise and the options available to the soldiers for voting.”

With these wide-ranging changes, multiple avenues have opened for voting by military personnel. These include direct voting in their own constituencies if they happen to be there, voting through proxy in their own constituencies, or voting in their duty stations.

There are pros and cons of voting either at the home constituency by appointing a proxy, or at the place of posting. Let me first deal with voting by proxy. The soldier is no doubt in touch with his family but his knowledge of persons standing for election from his constituency is likely to be nil or at best poor. Since time is at a premium, a proxy vote may well see the fate of the earlier postal ballot and may become invalid by reaching late. There are other negatives too. Extraneous factors of caste, creed, religion and even unlawful inducements continue to prevail. In addition, the vote bank syndrome is active and there is danger that the soldier’s vote may be cast by his proxy for his preferred person/party without the knowledge of the soldier.

When the soldier opts for voting in the place of his posting, the above mentioned infirmities are removed and he has the satisfaction of casting his vote for the candidate he has selected. However, there may be some administrative problems, like quantum of access to be given to candidates for canvassing, keeping in view security aspects, non-obstruction of training schedules and daily routine of the soldiers and similar related issues. These are not difficult to overcome if the military authorities lay down Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in consultation with the local officials of the Election Commission. Let me add that in most of our cantonments we do have Cantonment Board elections and they are conducted smoothly, without disrupting the routine activities in the station. On balance, I favour voting in station of posting by our officers and soldiers.

Voting in elections is a sacred duty of the entire polity in a democracy, and the polity includes all military personnel. We must encourage our soldiers to cast their votes in elections. Voting does not mean that military personnel would become politicized. They will remain as “apolitical” as they were earlier. They would also feel they are in the mainstream of the nation, and not aliens who only observe while civilians cast their votes and proudly display the mark on their finger showing they have voted.

Before the general elections scheduled for 2014 there are a number of state elections. All military personnel must vote in these too. It is the hierarchy of the military that needs to take a lead in this regard, as in all other endeavours of the military.

Come November, do we see the three Chiefs and the senior officers from the Army, Navy and Air Force Headquarters taking the lead in voting in the coming elections in Delhi? Those in Delhi Cantonment will automatically follow.

(Lt Gen (Retd) Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff and can ve contacted at genoberoi@gmail.com)