The elections are, literally speaking, a celebration in India. The Indian Election Commission in its campaign to encourage citizens to turn up and vote calls them ‘Desh ka Tyohar’ ( The National Festival). And why not? After all, this is the only time when politicians are knocking on the doors of 900 million eligible voters and not the other way round. For Indians, elections are about debating a host of complex and not-so-complex issues, and then choosing whosoever will deliver the highest standards of living to them. For the rest of the world, Indian elections are about their awe-inspiring size and the grandeur (much like any big Indian wedding). For the Indians living abroad, it is somewhere in between…
India is a young country when compared to its more developed Asian peers like China, Japan and Singapore. In the last general elections in 2014, 24 million first-time voters were added to the electoral list. If this number is astounding enough for you, what about the 45 million first-time voters in 2019? This number is larger than the populations of 200 countries (not even kidding). Most of these 45 million voters are aged between 18 to 24. No wonder a lot of campaign issues like unemployment, nationalism under the garb of national security, income guarantees try to capture the imagination of these voters. Politicians are bearing the hot Indian summer, campaigning incessantly, using social media, releasing music videos, and whatnot, to get the youth to their side. What a waste of effort will it be to see many of the youth not voting at all!
If you talk to students in Delhi University (which has the youth coming to study from across India), many are not going to vote for two reasons: one is stupid, and the other is sensible, but not sufficient enough to not vote. Talking about the sensible reason first, the trouble is that of travelling back to their hometowns to vote. Most first-time voters are studying in places far away from their hometowns. For them, travelling back for just one day for just a single vote which ‘won’t even matter’ is not worth it. Add on to this their stupid reason: they just don’t see a suitable candidate to vote for. They dislike the incumbent, they hate the alternatives. You combine these two reasons: of having to travel all way back to your hometown (India is a big country, geographically speaking) only to vote for someone you do not support, and you become sympathetic to their case of not voting.
The only problem here is that everything is problematic. Voting is NOT a privilege which can be compromised at the cost of personal comfort. There are voters participating in the festival of democracy by braving the gunshots and IED bombs of Maoists. These villagers are warned by local Naxalites to vote only at the expense of losing their lives, not to mention the election officials and security personnel who facilitate the voting in these remote areas, often at the cost of their lives. The State is making attempts to make sure every eligible citizen votes in the elections. Their work has stretched from setting up a polling booth specifically for one person in the middle of the Gir forest in western India amongst Asiatic Lions to election officials walking through knee-deep snow for 45 kilometers in the Himalayas with their election equipment for a meagre 37 voters. Oppressed women and Dalits fight their oppressors to exercise their franchise independently, every time they are asked to not vote or vote for a particular political party.
If these examples do not hit the young Indian’s “Lutyens’ Delhi” conscience, then the idea of voting should. A vote is an expression of freedom. It symbolises a free people living in a free land - a luxury not all human beings can enjoy. From being labelled “unfit to govern ourselves” by the British (White Man’s Burden, remember?), which became an excuse to oppress millions of people before independence to doomsayers predicting our Balkanisation after independence, an Indian’s vote is a slap to every coloniser or India-skeptic who ever questioned our right to nationhood. It is not, I repeat, a luxury. Lastly, young India’s vote determines India’s future. But, who cares? Saving a few Rupees on travel cost and having ‘exam prep’ is more important.
To me, the young, educated Indian’s attitude brings with it ironies which should be pointed out. How can we complain of the lack of young politicians when the youth does not prioritise engaging in democratic practices? How can we complain of lack of alternatives (the stupid excuse to not vote) when the youth does not care about the nation’s future? Aren’t our politicians a reflection of the society, no matter how skewed the reflection is?
In 2014, 281 million registered voters did not vote. To give you some perspective, ‘only’ 183 million voters are registered in the US- the world’s second largest democracy. It is as if a whole nation did not vote. 2014 was a wave election when the country was inspired by an ambitious leader. Voters also, for the first time, had the option to vote NOTA (None of the Above). Hence, the number of people opting not to exercise their franchise, in 2019, is expected to be larger. While high voter turnouts in percentage terms show how much faith Indians have in democracy, what is being argued here is the reason(s) to not vote of a very important section of the society is deplorable.
India is a young democracy. As we mature, we are bringing more reforms to our democratic setup. NOTA was one such reform. NOTA gives the ‘frustrated’ voter to register his anti-establishment sentiment in an established way. How many countries can take pride in this? While NOTA has been criticised for its ‘impotence’ (even if NOTA has most votes in a constituency, the candidate with highest votes still gets elected), it is a step in the right direction. Reform does not come in one go, but only gradually. If NOTA’s vote share keeps on rising, as it has since being introduced, policymakers might be tempted to give it its due potency a few general elections down the line. There are still more reforms which can be discussed but won’t be due to lack of space, like the Right to Recall or the introduction of a ‘Proportionate Representation System’.
Apart from the above-mentioned reforms, ideas like proxy voting, postal ballots, online voting and setting up ‘voting centers’ to enable those who live away from their hometowns to vote in their city of stay are being floated around. In fact, the Times of India has started a petition called ‘Lost Votes’ to bring to the government’s notice the need to enable voting from the place of residence. Change will come but who will bring the change? The leaders of tomorrow. What are the leaders of tomorrow doing? Thinking of the Right to Vote to be a privilege.
This was an appeal to all those first-time voters who have been caught in the inertia of everyday life. Remember, if we don’t change anything, then nothing will change. It is time we change the system by being a part of it rather than being a part of it after the system reforms itself.
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