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.