DC Books Commemmorative Speech August 21 2010

Youth’s Role in Democracy: Governance and Elections in the background of the 2009 General Elections
By Navin B. Chawla, IAS (Retd.) and former Chief Election Commissioner of India at Thrissur,
Kerela on 21 August 2012

Very briefly put, Democracy is Revolution by consent enforced through elections. Democratic elections do provide platforms for citizens to assert their civil and political rights by holding their elected representative accountable. The right to vote is perhaps the most important political right. In Lyndon Johnson’s memorable words, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.” The result is a more equitable and people-centered system of governance within society. Good governance is essential for sustainable development, both economic and social. Elections provide a starting point of the quest for justice and equality.

In India, the rise of SC & ST leaders, farmers, women, and minorities to head national and state governments and to other important positions has very much to do with the practice of electoral democracy. Heterogeneity of parties and government formation through coalitions do reflect a bouquet of diverse aspirations. The upward trend of participation among women, adivasis, dalits, villagers & poor in the decision making process can be traced to elections.

Indian Democracy was the largest democracy even at the time of the first general elections in 1951-52. The founders of modern India and members of the Constituent Assembly adopted universal adult suffrage, thus reposing faith in the wisdom of the common Indian to elect his/her representative to the seats of power. The choice of electoral democracy was variously termed: “a giant leap forward”, a bold enterprise and “an unparalleled adventure”. Despite a 16% literacy rate and a caste-based hierarchical social system, independence came directly in to the hands of ordinary people in the form of a vote. In spite of a low literacy rate, the ordinary people of India voted in many elections before even Switzerland allowed its women and Australia its aboriginals the vote.

The democratic system in India is based on the principle of universal adult suffrage; that is to say, any citizen of or over the age of 18 years on a prescribed qualifying date, i.e. 1st January of the year, can vote in an election The right to vote is irrespective of caste, creed, religion or gender. Those who are deemed unsound of mind, and people convicted of certain criminal offences are not allowed to vote. Voting is not compulsory in India. But, there has been a general increase in the number of people voting in Indian elections. From 44.87% in the first general elections (1951-52), it has steadily increased to 58.21% in the 15th general elections (2009).

India has conducted 15 General Elections to Parliament and more than 300 General Elections to State Assemblies. We have more than 3 million elected representatives at all levels – National, State and in the Local bodies. Indian elections to Parliament and Assemblies have never missed the deadline, and their credibility, too, has seldom been challenged.

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