(The author is the Chief Election Commissioner of India)
Today, January 25, marks the foundation day of the Election Commission of India, also celebrated as National Voters' Day (NVD) since 2011. Its purpose is to sensitize the citizens of India about their rights and responsibilities as voters. The Election Commission (ECI) was established on January 25, 1950, on the eve of the first Republic Day. The Constituent Assembly gave it a Constitutional status under Article 324 to ensure the independence of its functioning and decision-making. Establishing a permanent, central and autonomous Commission to conduct elections based on adult suffrage in an era of low literacy and non-existent electoral rolls is a tribute to the foresight of the Constituent Assembly. The institution's competency, impartiality and trustworthiness have been upheld in 17 Lok Sabha elections, 16 elections each to the office of the President and Vice President, and 399 Legislative Assembly elections to date. The 400th Assembly elections are underway. Contrary to occasional international experiences, election results in India have been never in dispute. Individual election petitions are adjudicated by relevant High Courts. The ECI has earned the trust of both political parties and citizens of India. The commitment is to enhance and deepen it.
Strong and inclusive electoral participation is crucial for building a robust democracy. Elections in a vibrant democracy should be more than free, fair, regular and credible. They ought to be popular and participatory as well, in order to bear their full weight upon governance. The right to vote is power only when exercised. We are reminded of a saying of Mahatma Gandhi- If leaving duties unperformed we run after rights, they escape us like a will-o'-the-wisp".
India is the world's largest democracy having 94 crore plus registered electors. Still, the actual voting figure of 67.4 per cent in the last general elections (2019) leaves a lot to be desired. The challenge is to motivate the missing 30 crore electors to the booth. Missing voters have many dimensions like urban apathy, youth apathy, domestic migration, and others. As in most liberal democracies, where enrollment and voting are voluntary, persuasive and facilitative methods are best. This entails targeting the low-voting constituencies and underperforming segments of voters.
The ECI has already institutionalized systems for facilitating two crore plus voters of age eighty years and above, eighty-five lakh PWD voters, enrolling 47,500 plus third-gender people. Recently, I thanked over two lakh centenarian voters with a personal letter to recognize their commitment to democracy. On November 5, 2022, I had the mournful honour of paying homage to the Late Shyam Saran Negi at Kalpa in Himachal Pradesh. Acknowledged as the first voter in the First General Election of India (1951), he never missed out on exercising the franchise, before passing away at the ripe age of 106 years. The example of the Late Shyam Saran Negi inspires us to cast our vote dutifully.
Young voters are the future of Indian democracy. The next-gen, born around and after 2000 have started joining our electoral roll. Their participation as voters would shape the future of democracy, almost throughout the entire century. It is, therefore, critical that democratic roots are seeded at the school level before students attain voting age. Simultaneously, youth are being engaged through various mediums in order to bring them to the polling booths. So is the case with urban voters, who tend to display voting apathy.
The ECI is leading the development of Assured Minimum Facilities (AMF) like toilets, electricity, drinking water, and ramps at every polling station. The Commission is keen that the facilities developed in the schools should be of permanent nature, which is a financially prudent decision as well.
In a democracy, voters have a right to be informed about the background of the candidates they vote for. Enabling the voter to make informed choices thus assumes critical importance. It is for this reason that the criminal cases, if any, pending against the candidates should be notified in the newspaper. Also, while every political party is within its right to promise welfare measures in its manifesto, voters equally have the right to know their financial implications to the public exchequer.
Though muscle power has largely been subdued, there still remain a few states where election-related violence impinges upon the free choice of voters. Violence should have no place in a democracy. Curbing money power remains a bigger challenge in the elections. The scale and quantum of inducement offered to voters are felt more acutely in certain states than others. Though stricter vigilance by law enforcement agencies has resulted in record seizures as witnessed during recently held elections, there can be no substitute for sincere and vigilant voters in a democracy. Mobile Apps like C-Vigil has helped common citizen report incidents of violation of the Model Code of Conduct, thereby helping the Election Observers initiate prompt action (within 100 minutes) against the offenders.
Retention and deepening of democratic spaces through credible electoral outcomes, worldwide, stand at a cusp. The sheer scale and speed with which social media can disseminate facts and views/fake news have the propensity to overwhelm other aspects of the technology in election management. Unconstrained by the underpinning of moral and legal spaces, which govern ECI's role & framework, anti-democratic chatter uses technology as an effective tool of its trade.
Hundreds of fake media videos/content are loaded and circulated before every election. In the absence of shelf-life, they continue to linger after the elections are over, especially those which attack key/core election domains. Worldwide over there is a growing expectation that social media platforms proactively use their enormous AI capabilities, in the least, to red flag such evident disinformation efforts. The responsibility to protect free spaces including free speech is co-shared. The realization that deep fakes make the job of Election Management Bodies much more difficult, needs to dawn and self-correction effected.
The NVD epitomizes the resolve of ECI to pull all stops out to make elections inclusive, participatory, voter-friendly and ethical. The theme for the 13th NVD (2023) is "Nothing Like Voting, Vote for Sure". As evident, the theme is such that it can capture the imagination of the voters. When citizens take pride in being a voter, as part of their civic duty, its impact on the level of governance is sure to be felt. Happy voters Day.