India’s million-strong military prepares to vote

April 9th, 2009 - 2:46 pm ICT by IANS  

By Ritu Sharma
New Delhi, April 9 (IANS) India’s apolitical military is proactively preparing to vote in parliamentary elections only a week away.

Thanks to steps the military establishment has taken, more than one million forms have been submitted to the Election Commission so that soldiers can vote whereever they may be posted.

This follows the military brass’ decision to ensure that soldiers get to vote — a democratic privilege many are forced to skip because of flaws in the electoral exercise involving soldiers.

The Indian Army has 1.1 million men and women, the air force has 140,000 and the navy has about 55,000 personnel.

“About 10 lakh (1 million) forms have been forwarded by the army personnel for registration. The Election Commission has acknowledged nearly 45 percent,” an army official told IANS, requesting anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.

In January, the armed forces, for the first time, asked all its personnel to get themselves registered with the poll panel in their area of posting to exercise their right to vote.

Most Indian soldiers, including airmen and sailors, have never or rarely voted while in service for want of an effective polling mechanism.

Military personnel can vote in their area of posting only during general elections and provided they are registered with the Election Commission in that area.

This, however, rarely happens.

Most soldiers also find the postal ballot system faulty, and appear to be unaware of the proxy voting system that allows a family member to vote on their behalf.

Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Fali H. Major told IANS recently: “Although there are proxy voting and postal ballots, things have not materialised as desired.”

The IAF chief has himself not been able to vote regularly because, like most of his colleagues, he has been away from where he has been registered as a voter during election time.

“The last I voted was 10 years ago when I was home on vacation. I have voted only four times (in 41 years of service),” he said.

The Indian Air Force has put all the procedures on its intranet. The notification of the Election Commission has been sent to various command headquarters, which in turn has informed the field units.

“People are being encouraged to vote,” a senior IAF official said.

The Election Commission reiterated Monday that defence personnel can use proxy voting.

But there are complaints against postal ballots. The system suffers from long delays, so much so that at times the postal ballots reach the units after a new government has already taken office.

Why the sudden desire to vote?

While no one is ready to speak on record, some retired and serving officers said this was linked to the discontent among the armed forces due to what they see as a raw deal in revision of pay scales.

“The armed forces are being shortchanged in the Pay Commission and their lack of say in decision making is hurting them,” said another high-ranking army official.

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