The Election Commission of India (ECI) was established on January 25, 1950, the day after the signing of the Constitution and on the eve of the first Republic Day. The Constituent Assembly gave constitutional status to the Commission under Article 324 so that it could function with complete independence. The capability, impartiality and credibility of this institution is visible in the 17 Lok Sabha elections held so far, 16 elections for the posts of President and Vice President, 399 assembly elections. There has never been a dispute regarding the election results in India and the respective High Courts have been giving decisions on different election petitions. The Foundation Day celebrated on 25 January is also celebrated as National Voters Day (NVD) since 2011. Its purpose is to inform the citizens of India what are their rights and responsibilities as voters.
rights vs duties
In a living democracy, it is not enough for elections to be free, fair, regular and credible. They should also have full participation of voters so that their full impact on governance is visible. Mahatma Gandhi had said, ‘If we run after rights by not performing duties, they escape our grasp like a rare thing.’
There are over 94 crore registered voters in India, yet the voter turnout in the last general elections (2019) was 67.4 per cent. These figures show the scope for a lot to be done. There are challenges in these as well as examples to deal with them.
The first challenge is how to motivate the 30 crore voters who remain absent from the booth. There are many reasons why voters are missing from the booth, such as urban apathy, youth apathy, domestic migration and so on. The experience of liberal democracies where registration and voting is voluntary shows that the best way is to get voters to vote by motivating them and providing them with maximum facilities. This creates a need to focus on low turnout constituencies and low turnout groups. The Commission has institutionalized the already existing system for registering more than two crore voters of the age of eighty years and above, 85 lakh PWD voters and more than 47,500 third gender voters. Recently, I personally sent letters to more than two lakh centenarian voters thanking them all. On November 5, 2022, I paid tribute to late Shyam Saran Negi in Kalpa, Himachal Pradesh. Negi ji was the first voter of India. The generation born around 2000 and after that has started appearing in our voter list. Their participation as voters will shape the future of democracy for almost a century. That’s why it is necessary that the seed of democracy should be sown in them at the school level before the voting age. The youth are being connected through many things so that they can be brought to the polling booths. Same is the condition of urban voters in whom indifference towards voting is being seen. ECI is engaged in providing facilities like toilets, electricity, drinking water, ramps at every voting centre. The Commission is serious about the fact that the facilities being created in the schools should be of a permanent nature. In a democracy, voters have the right to know the complete background of the candidates. For this reason, a rule was made for the candidates that if any criminal case is going on against them, then it should be informed in the newspapers. Similarly, while every political party has the right to promise welfare measures in its manifesto, the voters also have the right to know the financial implications of the same on the exchequer. Though muscle power has been curbed to a large extent, there are still some states where electoral violence hinders the free choice of the voter. Violence should have no place in a democracy. Curbing money power in elections remains a bigger challenge. The inducement offered to the voters is so great that it has to be seriously worked upon in certain states. Though record seizures have been witnessed, there can be no substitute for loyal and vigilant voters. Mobile apps like c-VIGIL have helped the common citizen to report incidents of violation of the Model Code of Conduct, which has helped the Election Observers to initiate immediate action (within 100 minutes).
fight fake news
Maintaining and strengthening democratic systems through credible election results remains a priority around the world. The scale and speed with which social media can spread disinformation can neutralize other elements of technology in election management. Hundreds of fake multimedia content are circulated before every election. This content continues to exist post-election, particularly material attacking major electoral processes. There is a growing expectation around the world that social media platforms should at least actively use their extensive AI capabilities to red flag things like this.
National Voters’ Day reflects the Commission’s resolve to remove all barriers to making elections inclusive, participative, voter-friendly and ethical. The theme of the 13th National Voters’ Day (2023) is ‘Vote Jaisa Kuch Nahi, Vote Zaroor Dalenge Hum’. When citizens take pride in being a voter as their civic duty, then its impact will definitely be felt at the level of governance.
(The writer is Chief Election Commissioner of India)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own.