Freedom to vote or not is a constitutional right

Freedom to vote or not is a constitutional right

The word ‘voter’ is coined from the Latin word ‘votum’, meaning “a vow or a wish or a promise or dedication”. Likewise the word ‘apathy’ is drawn from the Greek origin ‘apatheia’, emphasising “freedom from suffering and impassability”. As described in the urban vocabulary or dictionary, voters’ apathy is a kind of or a sense of indolence felt by the voting public when presented with candidates in the political fray with identities undesirable and off the accepted ethics of leadership. The voter apathy is also a product of natural reaction of the voter to the newer fraudulent means of political campaigning that compels them towards complete withdrawal from public political participation.

Do the just concluded and much awaited BBMP elections, which turned out to be ‘poll-unfriendly’, indicate the staunch symptoms of democratic decay? Is the apathy of the urban (middle and upper classes') voter caused by lack of political concern, conviction, attachment, indifference and listlessness? Perhaps not. But there is a strong feeling that their problems and perspectives are not being represented appropriately by the very leaders, who seem to be claiming to be the champions of resolving issues that are dear to every voter.   

Political homework

Bangaloreans, it appears, have grown complacent towards exercising their franchise and understandinghow uniquely special our voting rights are. The usual complaints among non-voters are about the choice of candidates. They have their own views and perceptions about the candidates who have contested. But whether this non-voting sector of our society has done enough of political homework about the contesting candidates before taking the negative decision of not exercising their vote is unclear. It does not appear that any prior thinking or such mental exercise had taken place before their decision.

The developments that have led to this growing tendency of not voting and the diminishing urban voters’ interest in election politics, appears to be deep-rooted and unlikely to be reversed easily or in the near future. There are a number of changes identified such as the failure of political parties to evince continued and sustained interest in local government politics. For instance, the delay in implementing the Kasturirangan Committee recommendations for direct election to the office of the Mayor with full five years’ term or to impress upon voters with their clear people-friendly manifestoes, the rise of candidate-centered campaigns, the emergence of hyper-critical press, as exemplified by the forced resignation of the former commissioner of the city corporation, Mr Subramanya, and more importantly, the decline of electoral competition among the candidates.

In its attempt to reinvigorate and refresh the already well-informed citizens of Bangalore, the broadcasting networks were found lagging behind in arranging debates, which otherwise would have attracted the voters to acquire additional information about the candidates and their views on urban issues. Even the cable television was not properly and efficiently used by the candidates to discuss and disseminate the strengths and weaknesses of their wards and their strategies to address the issues. As observed in some of the wards, the voter hardly had a chance to interact with the candidates. They had to rest content by only meeting the political campaigners who were mostly young girls and boys; these campaigners were in the age-group of even 13 to 15 years, often dismissed by voters as novice to politics and immature in political participation.     

As a consequence of such  campaigns and campaigners, the interactions with the voters were too short to make any concerted impact on voting behaviour and impression on the voters who again are from different age, gender, religion, caste, occupation and other such categories.

The major obstacle to voting, however, was the poor registration requirement that was disastrous. In nearly all the European democracies, registration is virtually automatic and there is a practice of the citizens registering their names at their local polling stations or places on the election day itself.

A good percentage of voters had to withdraw from voting, since their names did not figure in the voters’ list, although they had their identity cards ready with them. This needs serious attention and improvement by the government, before it goes in for implementing ‘compulsory voting’. There is also the need to discuss this policy and its feasibility along with the accompanying legal and constitutional issues that would arise in its wake. This is because any such move would be certainly questioned in the court of law, since it may go against the fundamental rights of citizens, such as the Right to Expression.  

Still, the government should see that no stone is left unturned in its effort to lure the citizens towards the polls. In addition to civic groups and media, schools and colleges should motivate students so that they look forward to their first participation in voting as a step toward life-long political participation. For, if citizens are not encouraged to participate more fully, people’s institutions, like the city municipalities and panchayats, will face far greater challenges in future, including the  question of how to maintain self-government when people hesitate to participate in choosing  their leaders.

Concerted efforts is needed for redressal of critical issues like voter apathy as the right to vote is given by the Constitution.

(The writer is Associate Professor, CPIGD, Indian
Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bangalore.)