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A Festival Of Democracy

How four National Voters’ Days added the equivalent of 20 Finlands to voter rolls

Written by S Y Quraishi | Published: January 25, 2016 12:00 am

Today India celebrates the 6th National Voters’ Day (NVD). This is the biggest festival of democracy, next only to a general election. Over 30 million voters will get their identity cards at over six lakh booth-level functions all over the country, including nearly 10 million young people who have just turned 18.

The origin of NVD is a story in itself. At a civil-society meeting in Bhubaneswar late in September 2010, a young man in the audience got up and said, “18 years is an age that deserves to be celebrated. At least one day every year should be dedicated to 18 year olds.” I thought it was a great idea. And NVD was born.

In a letter to the cabinet secretary “informing” him of our plan to observe January 25 as NVD, I requested him to ask the ministries and state governments to extend necessary cooperation. Three months later, with only a week left for the nationwide functions, a phonecall from the cabinet secretary almost brought our plans crashing down. My “proposal” was coming up before the cabinet and he asked whether we wanted a national holiday, and how much money we needed. Our answers saved the day: No, we did not want a national holiday, nor did we need a single rupee from the government. The cabinet secretary was naturally intrigued — eight lakh functions to be organised without any request for money! He had never seen such a proposal in his life.

Our secret was quite simple. Voter registration is a normal activity of the Election Commission (EC), carried out through the year. All we did was convert staggered, sporadic activity into an “event” using the normal budget. The first NVD was inaugurated by then President Pratibha Patil in the presence of 30 chief election commissioners from around the world. Some of them, including from Pakistan and Bhutan, went back home and declared their own NVDs.

After just four NVDs, the 2014 election was conducted with the addition of nearly 120 million more voters than in 2009. This is like adding the entire population of South Africa and South Korea combined, or three Canadas, or four Australias, or 10 Portugals, or 20 Finlands! NVD is the flagship event of another new programme of the EC, Systematic Voters’ Education for Electoral Participation (SVEEP). This programme, too, faced hiccups — some in the organisation questioned whether “educating” voters was the EC’s job. For me, it indeed was. Low turnout had been the bane of our elections, raising questions on elected representatives’ legitimacy. In this context, we considered voter education an imperative.

We had seen enormous public apathy, especially among the educated urban middle class, which not only abstained from voting but used to brag about this. Our challenge was to make not voting embarrassing. It didn’t take long. A 2010 campaign lampooning non-voters — “Pappu doesn’t vote, aaha” — did the trick. It achieved a remarkable increase in voter turnout. A key strategy was to have brand ambassadors — headed by no less than former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. The youth, hitherto indifferent or contemptuous of politics, started leading from the front. Twenty-five thousand campus ambassadors were appointed in universities and colleges. Schoolchildren became watchdogs of voter participation, coaxing apathetic parents to vote. All elections since 2010 have seen record turnouts. Election 2014 broke a six-decade record with 66.4 per cent turnout. In some states, this crossed 80 per cent. In half the states, women voters outnumbered men. Many have described this as a “participation revolution”.

The inked finger became a symbol — restaurants apparently started offering discounts, barbers giving free haircuts. The EC has now taken the movement to new heights. A grand Voter Fest (Matdaata Mahotsav) in Delhi last week attracted nearly three lakh citizens.

The best endorsement has come from PM Narendra Modi, who in his Mann Ki Baat said, “Till a few years ago, we used to see that our Election Commission is working just as a regulator. But it has undergone a significant change in the past few years. Today, our EC is not a mere regulator anymore. It has instead become a facilitator, is more voter-friendly and voters are now at the centre of all its plans and thoughts.” What makes these remarks especially significant is that the EC has consistently differed with his advocacy of compulsory voting. Who says there is no freedom to differ.


Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner, is author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election’

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  1. Gopal Nayak
    Jan 25, 2016 at 4:42 am
    Excellent, informative article. Highly appreciative of the initiative you took NVD. Thank you for educating and involving people to make us a Strong Democracy !
    1. M
      Jan 25, 2016 at 7:14 am
      Its a good contribution by an insution that others can take note of how things can be done if there is a good intention.
      1. G
        G M
        Jan 25, 2016 at 3:13 am
        Quraishi sb. Can anyone dare to question allotment of B.J.P.'s symbol . To this ordinary lay man allotment of lotus to any pirticular party is unfair as lotus is a national flower. So, B.J.P. has undue advantage on other political partees. Courtsee - Election Commision Of India. Disgusting neglect or collusion with currupt? Next time are we upto vote for national emblem( lion of Ashoka Lot)? Why not some nationalist take matter before designatet court to set wrong to right?Sao motto is also a option as consiquences has far reaching negative effect on democracy and level playing field.One more thing must be added to enhance the democracy through votes. A referendum is needed in various situation specially when ruling party practice just apposite of election manifesto . So a permanently established referendum office is a must. This office equipped with facility to enable voters to reflect their view/choice at short notice will further strengthens the vibrant democracy. This referendum office will also enabled us to organise general election once in two years as this will lead a situation where politician will start fearing to be removed from office as soon as they depart the mandate. A big tribute to your 'National Voter Day' initiative will not be meaningful unless we organise some sort of referendum at least once annually to celebrate the festival of voting on NVT in a country where festivals are always welcomed.
        1. M
          Jan 26, 2016 at 1:33 pm
          Good article. But always I wonder why we boast of our vast potion (entire potion of South Africa and South Korea combined, or three Canadas, or four Australias, or 10 Portugals, or 20 Finlands!) when still we are not able to convert this resource and add to our proportionately low GDP.
          1. J
            Jaiyant Sharma
            Apr 19, 2017 at 10:52 pm
            Given to the vast and heterogeneous nature of our country attaining a one size fits all approach towards development is a flawed concept in itself. This heterogeneity not only rests in geographical dimensions but also covers historical and social dimensions of the society, said that we have also been ruled for 200 years and the society as a w after independence was in a state where it demanded high welfare initiatives, which breed high dependence of public on the government. As usual, we woke up and realized we had a large amount of human resource but with no trait of self-reliance even after 60 years of independence. Hence, a paradigm shift came in govt. policies that encouraged self-reliance than dependence based approach. as the shift is in the previous few years it will gain momentum and show results in a few coming years when the human resource of the worlds to be largest working po tion would be self-reliant and skill induced would contribute to GDP of the nat
          2. R
            rajan luthra
            Jan 25, 2016 at 5:38 pm
            Any claimants for patenting this measure adopted in 2010?
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