Armed forces ask their personnel to exercise the right to vote

January 26th, 2009 - 12:00 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Jan 26 (IANS) For the first time, the armed forces have asked their personnel to exercise their fundamental right to vote in the areas of their posting during the general elections slated for March-April.In an unprecedented move all the personnel of the army, the navy and the air force have been asked to get themselves registered with the Election Commission office in their area of posting and exercise their right to vote.

“All of us have been asked to get ourselves registered wherever we are posted and exercise our franchise. Voter registration forms and other certificates required are being circulated among all units and departments,” a senior naval official told IANS requesting anonymity.

A majority of Indian defence personnel have never voted during their service tenure for want of an effective mechanism. However, there is a provision for the armed forces personnel to vote in their areas of posting only during the general elections, provided they are registered with the Election Commission.

India’s armed forces comprise a 1.1-million strong army, around 140,000-strong air force and nearly 60,000-strong navy and they can be a sizeable vote bank especially in cantonment areas.

“The main reason behind this proactive participation of the armed forces in the electoral process seems to be the armed forces being shortchanged in the Pay Commission and their lack of a say in the decision making process,” said a high-ranking army official, wishing not to be identified.

Though there is a postal ballot and proxy voting system, most personnel are not aware of it.

Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Fali H. Major confessed to IANS in a candid interview: “Though there is the proxy voting system and the postal ballot system, things have not materialised as desired.”

The IAF chief has himself not been able to vote for the last 10 years because, like most people in the armed forces, he has not been home during election time. “The last I voted was 10 years ago when I was home on vacation. I have voted only four times (in his 41 years of service),” Major told IANS.

The IAF chief’s statement underscores how successive governments have failed to give effective voting rights to the armed forces.

The postal ballot system has proved inadequate due to the long delays involved in sending out voting sheets.

In September 2003, parliament had approved the proxy voting system for armed forces personnel whereby they could authorise a family member - usually a parent or a sibling or a spouse - to cast their vote by proxy.

This system draws heavily from that prevailing in Britain but has proved to be ineffective because soldiers do not even know the provision exists.

The defence ministry has time and again stressed that it is looking into the matter but has not taken any steps to rectify the problems.

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