Thursday, December 9, 2010


How universal is our adult franchise?

Right to vote is seen not only as the most significant right in a democracy, but also as a quintessential characteristic of any democracy. Right to vote not only allows democracy to prevail and flourish but also has been the only way for citizens to steer the political landscape of any nation. However, on the one hand where universal adult franchise allows millions of young adults (above the age of 18) to exercise their voting rights in India, on the other hand, the same franchise excludes millions of similar young adults from exercising the same very right.

India is a country where more than 150 MPs have some kind of criminal antecedents and still our constitution allows them to contest elections. But ironically, the same constitution prohibits prisoners from voting. Representation of People's Act, under Section 62(5) does not allow prisoners to vote in India. Given the fact that India has around 700 million electorate and the voter turnout rate of 59.7 per cent in our last general election of 2009, it boils down to 42,62,58,000 voters. And considering that there are approximately 4,50,000 prisoners in the country, they definitely constitute a substantial part of the potential electorate. There are abundant examples around the globe wherein prisoners take active part in exercising their franchise! Countries like Ireland allows its prisoners (convicts) to vote. Even a few states of US allow prisoners to vote and a few categories of convicts in UK are also allowed to practice their voting rights. Almost all democracies ranging from Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Sweden to Zimbabwe – to name a few – allow their inmates to vote. Australia, France, Finland and Greece are some nations which also allows convicts to vote but with some restrictions. And even if we were not to follow these nations, how do we rationalise the fact that our nation does not permit convicts to vote while they are permitted to contest elections!

The same holds true for the NRIs, who have recently been allowed to vote, but only if they are present in India i.e., they need to be physically present in their respective constituencies! There are more than 30 million (or 3 crore) NRIs staying all across the globe, but they have no right to vote. They form around 4 per cent of total electorate and 8 per cent of total voter turnout. And it is not just about the quantum they represent, but also about the contributions they make to the economy. The total inflow of capital from NRIs was over $40 billion last year. The same was to the tune of $52 billion, the year before! With that kind of contribution, there is no rationale in terms of creating deterrents for exercising their franchise. And if security and fake voting are concerns, then technology in itself can take care of all these issues! Moreover, this population, if allowed to vote may not only steer the political power- table but would also increase NRIs' participation in Indian election system, which is a significant perspective. The US and the UK are among several countries that allow non-resident citizens to vote. In both countries, the expatriates are registered as voters in the locality they last lived. Most of the nations allow expatriate or non-residents to cast their vote either on-line or in embassies of their respective countries. In any democracy, it is pertinent to be inclusive, and this all pervasive inclusion becomes even more significant in our case wherein political parties come to power with a majority of 25-30 per cent vote. So far, the Indian case has exemplified double standards and neglect!


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