Edited Excerpts from an interview
One could argue that a campaign for better equipment and more holidays for defence personnel is more urgently necessary than the right to vote. But you consider their right to vote equally important. What made you take up this issue?
First of all, I don’t see this as prioritising between equipment, arms and voting. They are all relevant issues that the armed forces face. All of them are important. However, voting is of crucial importance as the right to vote is a constitutional guarantee. It cannot be left to anybody’s discretion. The need to procure weapons and equipment is left to the discretion of bureaucrats and politicians. The right to vote has been given fundamental importance in the Constitution. It is completely unacceptable for anybody to put fetters on a citizen’s right to vote, and more so when those citizens are among the most patriotic people in the country — as the armed forces personnel are.
For quite some time, I had been campaigning for ‘One Rank, One Pension’ in the army and for assistance to disabled veterans. There was an open house meet of veterans in January. One of the participants told me that he could vote for the first time only after he left the service. I asked him why he couldn’t vote when he was in the army. He told me that the Election Commission (EC) had made it impossible for people like him to vote by placing a condition that you had to be in a particular place for three years, accompanied by your family, to be able to exercise your franchise. It is impossible for armed forces personnel to fulfil this condition. I found this completely unreasonable. There are no such conditions on you and me. When we move from place A to place B in India, we are free to register ourselves as voters at the new place where we are transferred. I did some research on this issue and realised that such conditions put fetters on the rights of Indian citizens.
How has the EC been avoiding the issue until now? Is it just lack of initiative? If the EC can send officials to a remote village in the Gir forest in Gujarat to ensure that a tribal living there is able to vote, why can’t it do the same for the armed forces?
I could be wrong on this, but I do think that this has more to do with the kind of people in the armed forces — they are so disciplined that they are not used to making a fuss over their rights. In their list of priorities, going out on patrol and securing the border would be placed higher than anything else. If someone denies them the right to vote, they cannot sit on a dharna at the Jantar Mantar. They cannot send a delegation to meet the army chief. It is really for the civil society and the media to answer why these people, who are always silent because of the nature of their discipline, have no voice. Who is going to speak for them? Just because they do not hold press conferences or sit on a dharna like some chief ministers, they are denied their rights.
Shouldn’t the EC have been more proactive?
I did raise the issue with the EC. I invited Election Commissioner HS Brahma to one of our open houses. I also met Chief Election Commissioner VS Sampath. They were astonished and agreed that the fundamental rights of our armed forces personnel should be protected. They conceded, though, that there could be bureaucratic problems such as undoing the decisions taken by previous officials. I believe there was only one reason behind the decision to keep armed forces personnel away from voting: the fact that the army is posted for security duties in some constituencies. The fear was that the army could impact the outcome of the polls. But that is not a valid argument. It is as facile as saying that the Punjabis in Bengaluru would affect the election results, so they should not be allowed to vote. India is a democracy and Indian citizens, be they civilians or armed personnel, are allowed to settle anywhere. Demography does change. But you cannot deny anyone the right to vote.
Some people argue that an apolitical army is better than one composed of personnel with political preferences.
That is a stupid argument. The army, as an institution, does not participate in politics. Every individual in the armed forces is an Indian citizen, who is concerned about the country like you and me. They also have access to the media and are aware of what is going on in the country, eg, the numerous scams. They can certainly distinguish good politicians from the bad. The armed forces cannot indulge in politics, they way they do in Pakistan or Thailand, for instance, but armymen can. In every democratic country such as the US, the UK or Israel, while the armed forces remain apolitical, the armymen are allowed to exercise their right to vote. Arguing that armymen should be apolitical is like saying all criminals should be apolitical.
The US ensures that all its combat personnel, wherever they are, get to vote. A US citizen can vote in the election over telephone from any country. Could India come up with something similar or even better — an alternative to making EVMs available in border areas?
Firstly, let’s agree that every Indian should have the right to vote without any fetters. Secondly, let’s address the question of how to ensure they get to vote. Both proxy voting and the postal ballot are impractical in the Indian scenario. Proxy voting is effective only when the family can be considered a single electoral unit. A soldier could then ask his family members to vote on his behalf. But we live in a modern world. Individuals from the same family make different political choices. Proxy voting is unfeasible as it defeats the purpose of confidential voting. On the other hand, postal voting is meant for people who are overseas — diplomats, soldiers on UN missions, soldiers deployed in other countries to guard the embassies. In the Indian scenario, it is impractical because the time limit for the postal ballot to be sent and received back from a particular place is 10 days and that would be impossible to ensure. Armymen should be able to vote like civilians. Why make it complicated?
Will armed forces personnel be able to vote in the forthcoming Lok Sabha election?
Let’s hope so. If the EC has the right interests in mind, it will do away with the restrictions it has imposed. Anyway, I have petitioned the Supreme Court and we will argue that the restrictions are unconstitutional.
Most people from corporate India stay away from constructive campaigns for improving the Indian polity. Do you think India Inc should engage more creatively with politics?
In 2007, when I was the youngest head of FICCI and also an MP, I had called on my fellow businessmen to work towards making business houses more responsible stakeholders in Indian democracy. This was before the image of Indian business houses took a beating. I agree that business houses in India are not playing the role they ought to: fostering democracy and improving the quality of our politics and political debate. Business houses should be at the forefront in asking for transparency and reforms in governance. They must also act like they have a stake in good governance and good politics.