Several problems concerning Indian elections revolve around faulty voting machines, the role of the Election Commission of India, and campaign budgets. However, it is also time to look into the nature of participative democracy, and ensure adequate representation by the voters as well as the representatives, writes ANURAG TIWARY, making the case for radical electoral policy changes to make India’s elections more democratic.
KUMARI, a 61-year old voter from Kerala’s Kasaragod district, faced a peculiar situation during the assembly elections held in the state earlier this year. She was issued five voter identity cards by the Election Commission. The opposition parties alleged that this was an organised attempt to induct several bogus voters and sabotage the election process.
The unfortunate truth is that Kumari isn’t alone. It is an open secret in India that during every election cycle, fake and illegal voter identity cards are registered on the electoral rolls in huge numbers. These fake voter identity cards are then used by party loyalists to cast multiple votes or even worse, impersonate another voter during an election.
This is only one of the problems with the world’s largest democracy and its supposedly even bigger election machinery. The growing concern that India’s elections, and the governments born out of them, are no more representative of their people, is another. This is also a global phenomenon.
Representative democracy, a concept derived out of Roman law, is based on the principle that elected persons represent a group of people. A representative democracy cannot leave behind any group unrepresented, no matter how small or insignificant they might seem. The success of such a democracy is based on the maximum participation of its people. This effectively means that for a stronger representative democracy, one needs an even stronger participatory democracy.
For any State to establish a participatory democracy, there are two prerequisites – that the right to vote is made available and accessible to the maximum possible percentage of the population; and, that citizens exercise their Universal Adult Franchise in huge numbers.
India, as a democracy, has failed on both these sine qua non. India’s elections must be made more representative by enabling radical policy changes. There are, inter alia, three ways to do this – by reducing the voting age from 18 to 16, enforcing compulsory voting in the country, and introducing an Automatic Voter Registration system (AVR).
A flawed democracy?
Out of a total of 912 million eligible voters in India during the 2019 Parliamentary elections, only close to 67% went to vote. This was the highest percentage of votes polled ever in a general election. The party that won the majority secured 37% votes out of the total turnout which is only 25% of the total eligible votes. Almost 30 crore eligible voters didn’t cast their ballot.
A few other facts warrant our attention here. The ruling party at the Centre, the Bharatiya Janata Party, currently has a total of 301 elected members in the Lok Sabha, but not even one of them belong to India’s largest religious minority – Muslims. This effectively means that the government does not, at least electorally, represent a good 15% population of the country.
Even though 65% of our country’s population is below the age of 35 years, the average age of our MPs in the present parliament is 55 years. As India becomes younger, its parliament unfortunately continues to grow older every election cycle. In fact, the ruling BJP fielded the least number of candidates (only 8%) below the age of 40 during the last Lok Sabha elections.
No matter how grim the above picture might seem to be, it is unclear if young people have been systematically kept away from the democratic process or they have consciously chosen to stay away from it.
It is true that the present electoral system is structured to suit gerontocracy and encourage mediocrity; however, it is also true that disillusioned and cynically frustrated youth today have chosen to not engage constructively with their political super-structures. They have done so by refusing to exercise their right to vote. This has resultantly endangered democracy, and has created a flawed electoral system where the elected government doesn’t represent a sizeable population of the country.
Reducing the voting age
It is always good for gerontocracy if young minds are infantilized. It is even better if they are fed with the idea that wisdom comes only with experience. Every political system sets an age limit on maturity based on some alien mathematical calculation.
One such age limit is on the right to vote which exists without any system of regular assessment. Indians have voting rights only when they turn 18 years of age. To be clear, it is not being argued that setting the age limit to 18 years, at the time when it was done, was misplaced. However, with an ever-changing political landscape, it has become necessary to review its rationale.
The wisdom of enfranchising more and more young voters has its basis in two recent and modern developments. Firstly – young people are affected by politics today more than ever before, especially in the age group of 15-21 years. They are those citizens who are going to be most affected by the government’s present policies on aspects such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), global warming, climate change, natural resources management, information technology, food security, and gender norms, among other things.
Secondly – young people today are increasingly becoming active contributors to the country’s social, economic and political growth.
Evidence and research shows huge signs of positivity and tends to vindicate the claims made above. They make a credible case that reducing the voting age to 16 years will not just increase voter turnout and bring in a more diverse cohort of voters, but will also rejuvenate the national political scene by bringing in fresh perspective and enthusiasm to the table.
It is the argument of this piece that those between the age group of 16-18 are not just mature enough to be making political decisions but are also increasingly going to shape the future narrative on electoral discourse in our country as primary stakeholders of our democracy.
Human beings tend to take their rights lightly. The idea that voting is a right and not a duty is the gravest danger to modern-day democracies. It produces citizens who are indifferent and ignorant. It has the potential to create societies that will forever be stuck in poverty, corruption, apathy and violence. It will also perpetually be motivated by populism, demagoguery and rhetoric.
The number of people who go out to vote is proof of how strong their democracy is and what the levels of civic education, political stimulation and information symmetry within the nation are.
When people go out to vote in large numbers, the moral legitimacy of any future government naturally increases. When people don’t go out to vote, they cause larger harm in two specific ways. Firstly, they actively downplay and diminish the value of the votes cast by those who chose to exercise their voting rights and secondly, they influence several others to be indifferent and trivial about their fundamental rights.
It may well be argued that forcing anyone to do what they don’t wish to do and making it a legal obligation is against basic principles of freedom and liberty. However, when it comes to making a choice between the right of a few to remain silent and the right of the rest to attain a mature democracy, the latter should take precedence. A democracy must always be ready to make this trade-off.
It is, of course, true that enforcing compulsory voting without laying down exceptions will prove to be detrimental. Therefore, apart from laying down certain obvious exceptions, as has been done by several other countries, the Election Commission of India (ECI) must also extend the postal ballot system to those who can’t vote on the polling day. Introducing the pre-poll voting or advance polling mechanism will further increase voter turnout, make compulsory voting less harsh and, even better, reduce poll-day violence.
Kumari’s case is evidence that our democratic setup has already weakened. The Supreme Court too, in a recent judgment reiterated that “bogus voting ultimately affects the rule of law. Nobody can be permitted to dilute the right to free and fair election”.
75 years post-independence, India still runs an archaic model of voter registration based on a self-application method which is prone to severe abuse. Furthermore, self-initiated voter registration creates barriers for people who are the victims of digital inequality, who travel and change their places of residence frequently, or those who are simply unwilling to get themselves registered. Countries like the US and Britain have also recognised the need for automatic voter registration (AVR) while pointing out the several flaws in the self-application method.
Under the AVR System, eligible voters are automatically registered to vote whenever they interact with government agencies such as while registering their UID/Aadhar, driving license, university admission, and so on. A self-initiated system can continue simultaneously.
AVR will lead to cleaner electoral rolls because the process updates existing registrations with current addresses regularly. It also eliminates the possibility of human error and reduces the probability of fake voter ID cards.
Verifiable data from developed economies suggests that AVR reduces voter fraud and, in the process, provides for much cleaner electoral rolls.
The debate on electoral reforms has historically centred mostly around issues such as faulty voting machines, the role of the ECI, anti-defection laws, and limits on candidate spending. However, it is about time India realized that it cannot be a robust democracy unless and until the very process is worthy of claiming popular support.
We need to ensure that our democracy matures with time and age, and that the highest form of ‘participative democracy’ is achieved. To do this, India as a democracy needs to continuously rejuvenate and reinvigorate itself.
(Anurag Tiwary is an ‘Impact Fellow’ at Global Governance Initiative (GGI) and a final-year undergraduate law student at the Damodaram Sanjivayya National Law University, Visakhapatnam. The views expressed are personal.)