As the clamour for a viable system to enable soldiers to vote grows, veteran soldiers have also shed their compunctions and now participate vigorously in electoral processes

Days before the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government announced the “One Rank One Pension” policy for defence personnel, Pratap Singh Bajwa, the Congress MP from Gurdaspur, broke the news to a few ex-servicemen in Chandigarh. Once it was formally announced, a beaming Mr. Bajwa stood beside Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi when he came to meet grateful ex-servicemen.

However, few know that in the last five years Mr. Bajwa has raised 157 questions relating to defence personnel and their problems. During his election campaign in 2009, he went to army cantonments in Punjab where he promised serving defence personnel that he would take up their issues if they voted for him. In the run-up to that election, which came in the midst of intense dissatisfaction in the armed forces over the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations, some ex-servicemen’s organisations in Punjab had managed to get 15,000 defence personnel registered as voters in their place of posting.

Of the 13,345 votes polled from these cantonments, Mr. Bajwa is believed to have got some 11,000. He eventually won by a margin of 8,000 votes. If it had not been for the fauji votes, he may well have lost that election.

Mr. Bajwa is the early bird who recognised the potential of the defence community — serving and retired — as a constituency and worked on it. The others, even in his own party have only just woken up to the reality, evident in the scramble now among political parties to woo faujis.

Right to vote

In the last few months, these Punjab-based ex-servicemen organisations have managed to get around one lakh serving defence personnel registered as voters in the three major cantonments of Jalandhar, Amritsar and Ferozepur. Brig. (retd.) G.S. Ghuman of All India Veteran’s Core Group (AIVCG) said that though the Election Commission (EC) does not have a system to register servicemen, wherever non-governmental organisations or local formation commanders are proactive they have been able to get them enrolled. In Pune and Jalandhar, commanding officers of some units are encouraging soldiers under their command to get themselves enrolled, a development that has not gone unnoticed.

For almost four decades, soldiers have been not been able to exercise their right to vote effectively because, unlike the civilian population, they are not allowed to register as regular voters at their place of posting. A government of India rule says that they can be registered as regular voters only if they have been residing in a station with their families for at least three years. Civilians on the other hand are required to be residents of a constituency for only six months to become eligible to enrol as voters. A Supreme Court ruling in 1971 upheld the right of armed forces personnel to vote at their place of posting, but there is no mechanism in place for the Election Commission to register defence personnel in cantonments where they are ordinarily resident. Enrolment drives always bypass military areas. The wife of a service voter also faces hurdles in exercising her franchise as she can be registered only where her husband is posted.

The two methods available to them — of a postal ballot and proxy vote — do not work on the ground. The lapse did not trouble the apolitical soldiers much, for whom elections are a periodic event that take place outside the cantonments.

Turning point

Things changed when the armed forces felt short-changed by the Sixth Central Pay Commission recommendations. Organisations like the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM) formed in 2008 gathered strength as they lobbied for a better deal for soldiers. Many in the armed forces began to realise that “unless they become a powerful vote bank for all types of elections in the country, the politicians will not care” for them.

So, efforts were made even in 2009 at several cantonments and some naval bases too to register servicemen at their place of posting. Last October, then chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee, Air Chief Marshal (retd.) N.A.K. Browne petitioned the Election Commission to enrol soldiers as general voters. Now, service headquarters actively encourage personnel to register themselves. In the recent Delhi Assembly elections, navy men posted in Delhi got voting cards.

Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar has filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court to do away with the stipulation that soldiers should be residing in a station with their spouse for three years or more. His nationwide campaign to get voting rights for the armed forces has struck a chord in a wide section of society.

Last week, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Election Commission and the Ministry of Defence on Mr. Chandrasekhar’s petition. The outcome of this petition — which originated with the Chandigarh-based Brig. Ghuman — is being watched with interest. If it succeeds, it will have far-reaching implications not only in facilitating over 23 lakh serving defence and paramilitary personnel to exercise their franchise but also in the way political parties approach them.

As the clamour for a viable system to enable soldiers to vote grows, veteran soldiers have also shed their compunctions and now participate vigorously in electoral processes at all levels. Politics is no longer the distant phenomena it once used to be. One only has to look at the example of Gen.(retd.) V.K. Singh joining the BJP recently with 50 ex-servicemen in tow, cementing the new found enthusiasm among faujis to participate in democratic processes.

It is not without significance therefore that in Punjab and Haryana, where there are large military cantonments as also a huge ex-servicemen population, the State governments have announced a slew of benefits for servicemen in the last couple of months. In February, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal laid the foundation stone of a war heroes memorial at Amritsar and used the occasion to announce several sops. Within days, Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda announced a steep hike in financial aid for gallantry award winners.

The most pleasant of them all, however, has been the Central government’s decision to implement the “One Rank One Pension” policy. The same government which was indifferent when ex-servicemen took to the streets in 2010 demanding “equal pension for each rank,” has now overruled the Defence Ministry’s contention that the policy is not “legally or administratively” possible and rushed to appease the armed forces. By all accounts, the 2014 Lok Sabha election will be a watershed in the democratic empowerment of the armed forces.

chander.dogra@thehindu.co.in

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