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Leave No Citizen Disenfranchised Our voter registration process excludes millions

November 08, 2018 05:52 AM


Leave No Citizen Disenfranchised
Our voter registration process excludes millions
India must tackle serious gaps in its voter registration processes that disenfranchise large numbers of eligible citizens and mar our democracy. Indian administrators boast that it is the ‘largest’ democracy in the world. This is true, measured by the number of voters in the country. During the 2014 general elections, 814.5 million people, equal to the combined populations of the US, Indonesia, Brazil and the Netherlands, were eligible to vote. Of them, 66.4% exercised their franchise. This seems wonderfully inclusive and egalitarian, but hides dark realities behind big numbers.

In a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly in May this year, scholars Abusaleh Shariff and Khalid Saifullah show that criteria followed by state and central election commissions to enrol people as voters are poorly defined, arbitrary, and depend on prejudices nursed by local policemen and low-level administrators. Thus, having a ration card, utility bills, educational records or birth certificates might suffice to enrol one as a voter — or not. Their analysis of polling booth-level data across all 224 assembly seats in Karnataka also shows a consistent bias towards disenfranchising Muslims, compared to Hindus. While 15% of all adults were excluded from the list of Karnataka voters, nearly 25% of all Muslim adults were left out. Another anomaly was that in many households with multiple adults, only a single member made it to the voter rolls. The Representation of Peoples Act of 1950 says any adult (18 years or older) citizen, who is not a certified lunatic or convicted of election-related crimes, qualifies as a voter.

Yet, Shariff and Saifullah show that the Indian state is at best lackadaisical and at worst corrupt and prejudiced, when it comes to extending the franchise, regardless of faith, wealth or caste. If administrations and state and central election commissions do not address flaws in voter enrolment, their credibility will be dented. Worse, over time, India’s claim as a free, fair and secular democracy will be deemed farcical.

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