“We Fought for This Right, and We Must Use It”: India Goes to the Polls


“We Fought for This Right, and We Must Use It”: India Goes to the Polls

May 18, 2009

Women meet with the local district election commissioner to discuss the provision of clause 49 (O).

From mid-April to mid-May, the world's largest election was underway. With 714 million registered voters, rich, poor, rural and urban Indians alike took to the polls to exercise their democratic rights. The incumbent party, Congress, swept the elections, winning 206 seats in India's Parliament. A new parliament will be formed by June 2nd.

Trupti Shah works in Gujarat, a state in western India with a high rate of poverty, Hindu-Muslim tensions and gender injustice. Shah heads Sahiyar, a women's organization that focuses on gender equality, communal harmony and other human rights issues. As Gujarat's polling came to a close, Shah discussed the reality of voting in India.

Gujarat's Elections

It was very much evident throughout these elections: people were not very enthusiastic about voting. At least half the eligible voters in Gujarat did not exercise their right to vote. Ordinary people, particularly marginalized groups, felt that there was hardly anything for them in these elections.

This is true for most of India. The two major parties, Congress and BJP, have not been addressing issues directly related to peoples' lives. Many people said it was an "issueless" election. For example, BJP was talking about recovering black money from Swiss banks. How would an ordinary person relate to this issue, when people need work, food?

The parties were interested in our communities' votes, but they were giving us mere slogans. What we want is not just slogans. We want a concrete program. How are you going to implement the promises you make to ordinary people? What kind of changes will they make in the legal system? But they're not willing to give us concrete actions.

So people felt, if we aren't going to get basic things like safe drinking water, if our children are not getting a quality education, then what is the point in talking about politics?

A People's Manifesto

During the election, we told our communities: the right to vote is very important. Women and ordinary people got this right through struggles that lasted centuries. We fought for this right; we must use it. But then people said, "What does it mean, this right to vote? The leaders forget us. Why should we vote?"

We said: "The candidates should represent your interests in the parliament." We prepared a kind of "peoples' manifesto in consultation with grassroots women leaders." What do people want? What do they want to ask the candidates? The manifesto had simple demands from people, like the right to work, safe drinking water and enough wages to sustain our families. Women said, "We want a violence-free society." "We want government to take action on all those who are violating our right to live."

We made this manifesto and made copies, so that when any candidate approaches someone, one can ask these questions. The people who used it found that most of the candidates and their supporters were unwilling to answer those questions.

The 49 (O) Clause

This poster, written in Gujarati, explains to voters how to exercise their vote to cast an empty ballot using clause 49 (O).

Then we found out that we have the right to vote our discontent. We found out that there is a clause under section 49 (O) of the 1961 primer on the conduct of election rules. 49 (O) says, if you do not want to cast your vote in favor of anyone, you can return an empty ballot. We approached the state election commissioner, saying that there are people who would like to exercise their right to vote, but do not want to choose any of the candidates. We want to use 49 (O) and return our ballot—to express our disapproval and/or rejection of all candidates and our desire for better options.

We organized a delegation of women from various localities, who went to the district election commissioner, local media and local news channels and publicized our 49 (O) campaign. We also prepared leaflets. Many people, on the day of elections, went to vote and said they wanted 49 (O)—they didn't want to vote for anyone, but they did want to exercise their right to vote. It was a way to participate in democracy.

Some of the officers at the polling booths were not aware of this law; the requests were sometimes turned down. So we started a support center—many people called us, and we talked to the elections committees. Ultimately, about 400 people in Gujarat were able to use exercise their right to use 49 (O).

Looking Forward

We didn't want people to just sit at home and not use their right to vote at all. We fought for this right, and we must use it!

My hope is that people will hold more politicians accountable in the future. People have now learned to read between the lines. They do not have faith in politicians' false promises. The problem is that they don't see any viable options either. So if a viable option can be built and projected, then there is a bright future.