Voting is both a right and a responsibility

With great power comes great responsibility.’ – Uncle Ben in Spiderman

Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer beware)’ – Ancient Maxim

For every public role that a man or woman would play there is a qualification. If we want to be doctor we have to undergo schooling, then enroll in medical school as an MBBS student. All along the away at every important milestone we have to appear for qualifying examination and then clear it to move to the next level and receive the qualification/ degree. The same applies for other professions like Engineer, Auditor or Lawyer, etc.

However for one of the most important public roles, that of being a CITIZEN of the country, there is no training or qualifying exam in our country. As a democracy, everyone above the age of 18 years has the right to vote. The problem is that people are willing to treat their power to VOTE as a RIGHT and an ENTITLEMENT but forget that the power to vote is equally a RESPONSIBILITY too. Are we exercising that responsibility well? Are electing the right candidates to represent us? Definitely not. We pass on the blame for all of our nation’s maladies on to our politicians but we are part of the problem too. In fact the problems starts with us. Our political class is nothing but symptoms of deep rooted problems in our society.

Every one of us dreams of India becoming a great nation; but we are personally not willing to incur the small but numerous everyday costs that would collectively enable this dream to become a reality. Some of the guidelines to be followed in choosing our representatives include (but not limited to):

  1. We need to make informed choices and choose our representatives based on weighing the pros and cons of his governance record
  2. We should never choose a candidate because he represents the party we support (if the candidate does not merit being elected)
  3. We should not blindly support a party because historically our family elders have voted for that party
  4. We should not cast our vote for someone just because he or she is related to the leader whom we like

We blame that there are not many good candidates contesting in elections. But can we tell the difference between a good candidate and bad candidate? Do we know what information to use to arrive at that decision? Do we know where to look for that information? Do we understand the consequences of sending the wrong candidates to represent us? When the government doles out freebies, what are the other important projects that are being shelved? Where is the government borrowing from and who will pay the principal and interest for these borrowings? What would ensure in long term social progression? Where does India as a whole and individual states within India stand on each and every one of the parameters of Human Development Index? What’s the progress been over the years on these parameters? The answer to all these questions would be an EMPHATIC NO.

The only way to ensure this situation changes for the better is to have systematic qualification exam for voters or voters who are due to be eligible to vote. Going forward, the Election Commission of India, instead of adding anyone above the age of 18 (based on the proof of Indian Citizenship) to the voters’ list, should also conduct a qualification exam to assess if they are aware of the rights and responsibilities of a voting citizen. People who do not clear the exam should be denied a voter’s ID card and a place in the voter’s list. Since the cut-off age for being eligible to vote in India is 18 years, the age around which most kids finish their higher secondary schooling, we can have a subject for 11th and 12th standards across all school boards that deal with various aspects of the rights and responsibilities of a voting citizen. The curriculum for this subject should be handled by a constitutional body like the Election Commission of India. For people who are not fortunate enough to be part of the schooling system, the Election Commission of India should have an independent certification process.

The topics to be covered should include (but not limited to): a brief overview the constitution of India, the electoral process, the powers of the Supreme Court of India, Lok Adalat system, The Right to Information Act, sources to look for unbiased information on the back ground information of contesting candidates, etc. In addition, we should it make it mandatory for people to read the following books or similar books that deal with topics covered in these books:

  1. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman
  2. Basic Economics: A Citizen’s Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell
  3. Games Indians Play by V. Raghunathan (this book provides the Indian Context very well)
  4. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Note: The above list is only indicative and not an exhaustive one. There can be other relevant topics and books as well. Also there might be books that deal with the Indian context better.

People might question why limit this exercise only to new voters. The costs, logistics and politics of doing this for existing voters are enormous to overcome. Over four or five iterations of this exercise, we will have significant number of voters who would have come through this filtering process. If you don’t believe, keep in mind that the number of first time voters in the 2014 National Elections was around 12 crores!!! In four iterations, at an average of 10 crore new voters per iteration, we can bring in 40 crore voters through this process, a voting block significant enough make a positive change. It is well known in social sciences circle that the minority influence can in fact bring about social change, so making a start which is directionally correct is more important. Also starting with the younger population provides the added advantage that the young are not as much influenced by the social prejudices prevalent in our society and will be more open to change. We can also hope that the awareness created by the process of implementing this new system would have a positive influence on existing voters as well. We should also create incentives for voters to put into use, the knowledge obtained through this system.

There will always be loopholes and we might not be able to create a completely foolproof system. However at this point in time we need to only worry about whether we are moving in the right direction. We should bear in mind that social as well as political change is a slow and evolutionary process and we should be patient enough to give this new system the right amount of time to flourish. Some people might ask why not a qualification system for contesting candidates as well. It is a much more difficult idea to implement. Also as more and more candidates with cleaner and better governance records get elected, political parties themselves will see the merit in fielding right candidates. After all, aren’t Indian political parties’ masters at playing vote bank politics?

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