As a citizen of a democracy, one has not only a right to vote, but a duty to do so. If one does not, how can one possibly exercise any right to hold to account the people who represent one in Parliament or in local authorities?
Anyone who is interested in the working of democracy will be aware that elections are taking place in India. The coverage of those elections in the United Kingdom has been limited, but it has been there and has let us know what is happening.
There are several things about Indian elections which have always fascinated me. The obvious one, of course, is the sheer size of the electorate. Another is the complex system that is in place to ensure that the election is fair. Yet another is the highly sophisticated voting system, with the use of electronics.
The feature of Indian elections which fascinates me most, however, is the high proportion of those who are eligible who do actually cast their votes. That, it seems to me, is the most positive thing to notice, and the thing which emphasises above all else the fact that the Indian democracy is not simply the largest in the world, but also one of the most effective.
I am writing this, and producing my observations and conclusions, as someone who lives in the oldest democracy in the world. My thoughts are inspired by the fact that we in the United Kingdom are also about to take part in elections. They are not national elections, but they are real nonetheless: elections to choose representatives in our local government authorities, and in the European Union Parliament. (Our electoral procedure, incidentally, is much less technologically sophisticated than that in India.)
Inevitably, I make comparisons between our elections and India’s. I wish I could declare that the comparisons are all favourable to us — but alas, that is very much not the case — and that has nothing to do with the technological differences between the two countries.
For one thing, the proportion of those eligible who actually cast their votes in the U.K. — in national as well as local elections — is traditionally very much lower than in India. There are, no doubt, many explanations for this, one of them almost certainly being the quite high level of disillusionment with our politicians.
As someone who, as a matter of principle, has always voted in every election where I have been eligible, I find this most depressing. I believe that, as a citizen of a democracy, I have not only a right to vote, but a duty to do so. If I do not, how can I possibly exercise any right to hold to account the people who represent me in Parliament or in local authorities?
To put it another way, is it not thoroughly irresponsible to ignore one’s right to vote? Is it not, in fact, not just a right, but one which should be accepted as conferring a sense of obligation?
These feelings have always been significant for me, particularly as I have observed over many years the situation of people who live in places where they have not had a right to vote. One of the most significant features of the election in South Africa after the end of apartheid was the very high turnout. For most of the population, it was their first opportunity to have any say in how they were to be governed, and not surprisingly, after years of being under authoritarian control, it mattered greatly to them.
If you have always had the right to vote, and have always been able to assume that that right will continue, it is understandable that exercising your voting right may be less important to you than it is for someone for whom voting rights have been for years non-existent. However, the right to vote, in my view, carries with it an obligation.
I find it disturbing, and depressing, that for so many people in the U.K. that does not seem to be the case. The attitude: “I have the right to vote, but I cannot be bothered to exercise it” is profoundly depressing, and profoundly irresponsible. I wish more people shared with me that view of their democratic rights and duties.
To put it simply and starkly, I wish more of my fellow citizens would be convinced by the behaviour which they observe in the citizens of India. The oldest democracy in the world most certainly has something important to learn from the largest.
Thank you most warmly for your example. Let us hope that the lesson sinks in.