Archive for October, 2009

A Pyrrhic comfort : Article 49(O):

14 October 2009

I strode into the SNDT College on Karve Road, once inside the building ahead turned right as if on cue & reached the room at the far end displaying on a placard “No. 120”, secure in the knowledge that I had reached my voting booth for Maharashtra assembly elections 2009. My confidence was not misplaced until now. I went to the person, whose name was Tambe I later learnt, who was checking names against electoral rolls. I gave out my serial number 1322. He asked my name, thumbed through the entry he had reached & shook his head. My heart sank as he showed a name Inamdar jumping out at me from no. 1322. This was the number where my name stood during the parliamentary elections held earlier in the year. I shared this information with him & queried if the names of voters are jostled around come every election. Sensibly not entering into any polemics with me he asked me to have my name located in the alphabetical list provided outside & come back again to exercise my democratic duty. I had no other option. I located the bench where a woman was helping others like me or may be even those who were completely clueless to find their names in rolls for block no. 120 & 123, though she happened to be outside the room where voting for block 121 was taking place. While I waited my turn, my thoughts whirled around the bouquet of candidates on offer for Kothrud assembly seat.

Current election seemed to have thrown up a rather huge crop of rebel candidates from almost all major parties. Either the rebels chose to join & were heartily welcomed like long lost brothers in their erstwhile opposition camps or chose to join the fray as independents. Diehard Lotus suddenly started ticking as a Table Watch, or Bow & Arrow overnight transformed into Hand, and elsewhere Hand morphed into a shining Ring. No one minded this chameleon like changing of ideological colours, because none is involved despite hot posturing for electoral gains. Mostly this is an election fought without any major issues in a situation (failed monsoon, failing agriculture, power shortages, and so on) fraught with so many of them. The scenario became murkier with so many rebels in the ring. Making a choice was always difficult, but now it had become well nigh impossible. On earlier occasions sometimes the ruling dispensation became so unwanted that one simply voted to get them out – so called negative vote or vote for change as pundits termed it. At others one voted tactically to avoid parties representing highly narrow minded partisan agendas. Sometimes votes went to unwinnable candidates simply to preempt bogus voting & as a disguised protest vote. This time it was worse. One felt like avoiding everyone on the offer.

As late as July 2009, a corporator of Pune Municipal Corporation was arrested by Pune police in “12 cases involving alleged forceful land grabbing, issuing threat to life and dacoity”. Of course he was not unique in this. It appears that 44 of the total 144 elected corporators face criminal cases. So it has become a sort of qualification for an elected post. Secondly, unless convicted all are innocent & have every right to stand for an elected office just like you & I. Now our corporator decided to enter the assembly elections for the bigger prize of membership of legislative assembly, but as an independent since his party spurned him. The reason I have selected him for comment is that his brochure made way to my mailbox. It is a glossy, full colour product produced on expensive art paper. What caught my eye are the endorsements he seems to have received from two well known worthies of Pune. Pandit Vasant Gadgil is a well known Sanskrit scholar from respected Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (BORI); whereas P C Shejwalkar is described as the doyen of management education in Pune – a sort of resident Peter Drucker. The reputation of these two is enough to galvanize those from the educated class & who are generally uninformed about the background of candidates to plumb for their choice. Just below Gadgil’s endorsement appears one from the district president of Sambhaji Brigade. This very organization had vandalized the BORI only a few years back (2005?) for what they held was an insult to Chhatrapati Shivaji in a book by an American James Laine. Rare & ancient manuscripts were destroyed in the attack. What an irony?

While I was thinking about what to do, the emails that started circulating since I believe 2004 national election came to my mind. They were about right of Indian citizen not to vote under article 49(O). Some suggested it was an article from the constitution, others that it was from The Representation of the People Act – 1951. I had made search to find out what was the fact. It turned out that such provision did indeed exist, but under the Conduct of election rules, 1961 framed albeit as per the provisions of the foregoing act. The provision itself reads innocuously like this :

49-O. Elector deciding not to vote.-If an elector, after his electoral roll number has been duly entered in the register of voters in Form-17A and has put his signature or thumb impression thereon as required under sub-rule (1) of rule 49L, decided not to record his vote, a remark to this effect shall be made against the said entry in Form 17A by the presiding officer and the signature or thumb impression of the elector shall be obtained against such remark“.

Though it has taken me long to put it down, this mulling itself took less than a few minutes that it took me to reach the head of the queue. The lady herself didn’t take more than may be 30 seconds to ferret out my name at serial number 424. I was relieved & wanted to alert my son who was at another polling station about the arbitrary shifts in electoral rolls. He turned out to be more fortunate & later informed me that his serial entry was inviolate. So even the jostling around of numbers & names proved not consistent. I went back to my polling room, this time successfully identified my entry on the electoral roll, which by now had a photograph (it was not there during parliament elections though I had filled necessary form & affixed my mug shot), but I failed to verify if was mine. Then I turned to the table carrying a legend ‘Presiding officer’ and enquired how I could exercise my right for not voting for any of the candidates in the fray. He looked nonplussed, but helpfully pointed to Mr. Tambe (mentioned earlier) for guidance. Mr. Tambe confidently told me to complete all formalities required otherwise prior to casting of vote & then write in the remark column that I am not casting vote for any candidate. After that instead of proceeding to electronic voting machine (EVM) for casting vote, I was to simply leave the polling booth. I identified myself with a photo-identity (driving license), collected the voter-slip, next had the index finger of my left hand marked with indelible ink, and proceeded to sign the register (I didn’t remember Form 17A & couldn’t ask if that was it) after handing over the voter-slip. In the column to the right of where I signed, I made the following entry :

None of the candidates in the fray I deem fit for representing the Kothrud Assembly seat“.

Now as per article 49-O, the presiding officer is supposed to enter the remark that voter has decided not to vote. Then he is supposed to obtain the signature of the voter confirming the remark made. Neither of the conditions was complied with. This unintentional breach of rules was welcome because this kind of remark would not have satisfied me. It was not that I was not voting. I was voting for none of the candidates for the seat. Today I learnt from newspaper reports that quite a few individuals have chosen to exercise their right as per 49-(O). I would love to know what they wrote in the remark’s column.

However, this is a kind of protest vote. It also suffers from the infirmity of not complying with thesecret ballotprinciple. Even this protest vote should remain secret in the sense that identity of those casting it shouldn’t be revealed. Election commission should be asked to have an extra button on EVM that provides the omnibus option “None of the above candidates“. It would be easy to navigate legal niceties if people’s wish expresses itself strongly in its favour. The emails that talked about 49(O) also claimed that if this protest vote was the highest among all contestants, then there would be a reelection in the concerned constituency and none of the candidates defeated by the protest vote would be eligible to contest. Though a likeable provision, I have not found any act or rule that confirms this. Another unsatisfactory aspect of protest vote is that it remains unsatisfactory in the sense it doesn’t automatically result in any positive movement. That would require far more organized work to generate mass participation in governance that is currently missing. We wake up on the election day, if at all, exercise our franchise, gloat for some moments in satisfaction, and go off to sleep again until the next election.