01 Apr 2019 17:06 IST

Exercising choice is no joke

It vests in freedoms we take so easily for granted, and in our rights and responsibilities

Are you 18 or above? The law in India says that if you are female, you can marry, if you are male, you have to wait until you are 21. But you can drink (except in Nagland, Manipur, Bihar, Lakshadsweep and Gujarat where drinking is illegal), and get a driving licence. You can be employed, and you can vote. Although the last-mentioned is not listed as a Fundamental Right in the Constitution, it is your responsibility as a citizen to have your say and the law will back you to the hilt. If you turned 18 by January 1 this year, you are eligible to vote in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections (April 11–May 19). But there’s a catch.

You have to register as a voter. Have you done that? The place to do it is on the website of the Election Commission of India. If you’re lucky and the online process works, good on you. More likely, though, it won’t, so be prepared to virtually huff, puff and pant to get your name registered on the voters’ list.

The best id on polling day, whatever the election, is EPIC, which expands to Electors’ Photo Identity Card. Well, what did you think? Of course you have to apply for this and play the chasing game all over again. Make sure every detail is entered correctly; you can never be sure of this even if you know you filled in the details in the form accurately. My friend, Pallavi, for instance, received her voter id in the name of Balaji – and this, after she applied for it in person!

Vote, even without a voter card

 

What if you don’t have a voter id as yet? Not to worry, there’s a silver lining. You can show any one of several documents in order to be allowed to cast your vote. These include: passport; driving licence; bank or post office passbooks with photograph; PAN card; smart card issued by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India (RGI) under the National Population Register (NPR); MNREGA job card; or Aadhaar card. There are a couple more, specifically meant for service personnel, MLAs, MPs, MLCs, and so on.

The choices we make, come elections, are often influenced by the promises made by parties or the force of individual contenders’ personalities. Or even simply which party/faction we follow and which we don’t. However, it may serve us better to detach ourselves from individuals and groups and make our own personal assessments. Of course, we certainly will not know everything about everybody and because some people are more visible than others and are projected more consistently in the media and are also themselves more media-savvy, they get noticed more easily than some others who may deserve our attention as well.

One thing that may help us assess for ourselves is to revisit some parts of our Constitution, specifically, the section that talks about Fundamental Rights. What are these? The Constitution guarantees a series of Fundamental Rights to the citizens of India. Among them are the right to equality before law anywhere in the country; prohibition of discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth; equal employment opportunities; the abolition of untouchability; freedom of speech and expression, freedom to assemble peacefully and move freely throughout India, to settle anywhere and to practise any profession.

It is also a fundamental right to expect free and compulsory education from the state for children between the ages of 6 and 14 years. Other Fundamental Rights involve the prohibition of human trafficking and forced labour, and not employing children in factories and hazardous work. Indian citizens have the right to freely practise their religion, with minorities having the right to protect their languages and culture. Importantly, Article 21 gives us the right to privacy, and this is at the heart of the entire debate around the Aadhaar UID.

Make your own assessment

Keeping these factors in mind, revisit the campaigns and promises and manifestos and performances of organisations and individuals in the fray for a place in the Lok Sabha. How do they measure up against these rights and freedoms? What are your own key values? What are the values you uphold for the nation? What do you think would be good for you? What would best serve the greatest common good? What’s important in the larger scheme of things? In the long run? Are things improving for the people who work at your home or in the office, or do you see discrepancies and disgruntlements gathering force?

Is your environment degenerating or improving? What about refuse collection and air and water? Will you have drinking water this summer? Do you sense that people are angry? Or intolerant? How many can read? Are children going to school? Are you free to go to church, mosque, temple, gurudwara? Do people pick on you for being different? What about ramps to make places accessible to the less abled? Do you see them? Do you see them being used? Are playing fields and parks being taken over by shopping malls and flyovers? Where do children play? Are public spaces accessible to everybody? Is there a culture of respecting privacy?

 

There are many questions to ask, and answers to seek out, before you decide on which button to hit, come election day. Our Constitution, drawn up with much thought and deliberation by some of the best minds in India, guarantees us the right to think freely for ourselves and act responsibly. No one can stop you from voting if you fulfil the criteria. But you can vote in only one constituency or else your vote will be disqualified. Nor can you vote if you have bribed someone or tried to influence the course or result of an election, among other offences. Prisoners cannot vote either.

People, community, humanity

You also have the right not to vote and record the fact by pressing the NOTA button that appears at the end of the list of candidates on the electronic voting machine (EVM). NOTA simply means None of The Above, and it’s a powerful way of saying that none of the candidates in the fray in a particular constituency were considered suitable. Another interesting aspect to the voting scenario is the possibility of a voter seeking to cast his/her vote when a vote has already been registered in that name. In theory, the aggrieved voter can vote after providing appropriate proof of identity. Whether this works in practice is different ball game altogether, involving the discretion of the Election Commission.

Pollsters and media watchers tell us that elections are all about numbers. These numbers, however, depend upon people. In effect, then, elections are all about people. We are reminded of this by a school teacher from Avanporgaon in Pulwama district where, on February 14, some 40 CRPF personnel fell victim to a terrorist attack. In a section showcasing stories from Kashmir at Senate House as part of the Chennai Photo Biennale recently, a school teacher said: “Community makes nation. Silence the community and the nation dies. War takes place. In war one side wins, the other loses. What neither wins nor loses, but simply dies is humanity: human values, human relationships, faith, and trust. I fear for the end of all of this. I fear that humanity will not survive.”

 

We cannot let humanity die. In order that humanity lives, we need to choose leaders of heart, of compassion, of fellow feeling, uncompromising — as New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern showed recently — in their commitment to citizens’ well-being. No one is perfect nor is it fair to expect perfection. But it is perfectly fair to expect an individual to do his or her best in the best interests of the people he or she may serve. Because leaders are about leading, and leading is about serving the people. The people hold all the cards: to choose well and wisely, for the health of our nation and the future of our children. As a doctor in Srinagar said, “You must not believe everything the people tell you. You must not listen with your ears but with your heart.”

Does this mean every vote counts?

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