As a larger number of service personnel would be in the many cantonments in Haryana and Punjab, competitive canvassing there can introduce problems

Vote bank politics is a commonly bandied about expression in the election season, which is no surprise. But a new vote bank of Armed Forces personnel is now looking a step closer to reality with the Supreme Court directing the Election Commission (EC) to allow defence personnel to vote as general voters in peace stations. This is somewhat unusual. The Supreme Court merely reiterated the law it laid down in an earlier judgment in 1971, though the circumstances of that case were somewhat different. The Representation of the People Act, 1950 defines the term ‘ordinarily resident’ in Section 20, a qualification required to get registered as a voter. Armed forces personnel are among the few categories of people defined as persons with ‘service qualification’ in Section 20(8) and are given a special dispensation in Section 20(3) and Section 20(5). This category can declare while living at a place ‘ordinarily resident’ status at another place where they would have normally lived, if it were not for the exigencies of service. Implicit faith was to be placed on their declaration and they would be registered at the place they indicated as their place of ordinary residence, most likely their native place, and as a corollary the place of their posting could not be their ordinary place of residence.

Place of posting vs residence

In a matter arising from the Nagaland Assembly Election in 1969, the court did not accept the argument that for service personnel, the place of posting cannot ipso facto be the place of residence. Instead, the declaration of the Assam Rifles personnel, who had spent 10 years in one location claiming it as a place of ordinary residence under Section 20(5), wherein but for their service qualification also they would have been ordinarily resident and not merely because of it, found favour with the Court. The Court declared that the statutory fiction in Section 20(3) gave the right to the personnel to claim registration at their home town or village but “the fiction cannot take away the right of persons possessing service qualification to get themselves registered at a constituency in which they are actually residing though such place happens to be their place of service.”

The law gave a special dispensation to a service voter in that his declaration designating a place as his place of ordinary residence and certified by his organisation was not to be questioned by the Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) but simply accepted. It was intended to avoid the delay in registration if an enquiry were to be done independently by the ERO as in the case of ordinary voters.

Interpreting that judgment as mandating the registration of a service voter at the place of his posting and by cleverly using the provision u/s 20(5), a campaign was mounted in the run-up to the Punjab Assembly election in 2007 by Brig. H.S. Ghuman (retd.) and his All India Veteran’s Core Group (AIVCG) to have service personnel posted in several cantonment towns in Punjab to register as ordinary voters there. A total of 7,274 service personnel were registered as voters, of whom 850 were from towns and villages of Punjab and 6,424 from other States. All applications were in Gurumukhi script, but most of the signatures were not in that language, therefore providing a clue to what really went on. The highest registration was in Kahnuwan constituency in Gurdaspur district with an Army cantonment, where 3,488 personnel registered. Of them, 70 were from Punjab and the rest from other States. It was alleged by the Akali opposition candidate that the Congress candidate P. S. Bajwa’s relative, a retired Brigadier, was the prime mover for this large-scale registration. The formation commander was accused of collusion. Mr. Bajwa won that contest with a margin of 5,288 votes. Evidently Mr. Bajwa used the tactics more effectively in the 2009 Parliament election. He seems to have won the Gurdaspur seat by a margin of 8,000 votes, with 11,000 votes from the cantonment cast in his favour against the 13,345 votes polled by servicemen.

Since then, retired service officers and others including a Member of Parliament have lent their support to this campaign culminating in the latest verdict of the Supreme Court. But as a note of caution that was sounded in many border States — that the local voter population may be small and can be outnumbered by the service personnel — the Court restricted the applicability of the order only to peace stations. In other words, only in peace stations can service persons claim they are ordinary residents and vote locally. If their units move out to non-peace stations, they cannot register themselves there. Imagine a serviceman who hails from Odisha and is posted in Jalandhar and gets himself registered there. He can vote in the Lok Sabha election but cannot vote for the Odisha Assembly election being held simultaneously. If his unit moves to a non-peace station, he can neither register himself there nor can he vote in the next Parliament or Assembly election unless he is registered again at some other place.

If peace stations are defined in a location-specific manner, this can lead to anomalies. If Itanagar or Leh are defined as peace stations but not Tawang or Nubra, it may be kosher for vote bank politics but it will create disaffection among the local population in both places, given the small-sized constituencies and the thin margins of victory. Distinctions based on unit-specific roles in the same station will entitle men of the non-operational unit to register as voters and of the operational unit ineligible. So States have to be in either category to avoid anomalies.

More problems

As a larger number of service personnel would be in the many cantonments in Haryana and Punjab, competitive canvassing by politicians there can bring in its wake other problems. A normal movement of a unit can be questioned by rival politicians as favouring one or the other candidate or party. The formation commanders can be accused of favouritism as happened in the Punjab Assembly election in 2007. Will the Election Commissioner be petitioned to effect the transfer of a formation commander because of his perceived partiality as is done in the case of Collectors, Superintendents of Police, Deputy Inspector Generals of Police, etc.? Only time can tell. But if a perfectly routine exercise by a detachment of the Army can be hyped to raise fears of a coup, pre-election movement of Army units and posting of formation commanders can become the subjects of political mudslinging with obvious adverse consequences.

Since the new dispensation would not extend to all the defence personnel and since many service personnel may still remain registered in their native towns and villages by choice, the postal ballot system or its alternative — the proxy voting facility — would still be relevant. A study done at the behest of the EC by the Collector of Thanjavur district in 2007 showed that only 34.54 per cent of the postal ballot papers issued to service personnel returned in time to be included in counting. A significant 12.63 per cent of the ballot papers which were received late missed the counting. Worse, 25.39 per cent of ballot papers were returned undelivered, which meant that their addresses were not updated by the Record Office.

Transmission time can be cut down if blank ballot papers are sent electronically, providing more time for their return. Better still would be to develop online voting and what better way than to provide it to the group that deserves it the most? We certainly owe it to our Armed forces personnel to do all that is possible to enable them to exercise their franchise.

(N. Gopalaswami is a former Chief Election Commissioner.)

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