Back in 1997, while in the professional diaspora in neighbouring South Africa, I got a lifetime opportunity to spend three months in the land of my paternal ancestors, India.
Together with a researcher from the newly established Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa, I was sponsored to study the 50th elections of one of the world’s oldest democracies.
Now, India is a world of great poor/wealth divide, a sad disease that Botswana and many African nations are slowly catching up to. From the world’s entry point commercial city, Bombay, to the political capital of New Delhi and the rural lands of Kerala state, poverty and extreme wealth live side by side.
From the main road from Bombay airport into the city centre, for an example, we were met with one side lined with shacks and on the other three story houses. And just as is today, it has always been in the land of distinct class divide, the caste system.
But what we were soon to learn, was that whatever the socio-economic standing, these two communities, the middle and working class included, Indians have one common regular act: voting.
To say Indians know their voting rights is an understatement.
In the three months, travelling the length and breadth of the highly populated Asian country, we learnt that from the day one qualifies to vote, at age of 18, they line up for registration to vote and ensure that every five years, or whenever there is a call for early elections, they exercise that right. At the New Delhi IEC headquarters, a long skyscraper, we found files lining corridors to the roofs, and we learnt these were files of registered voters. These offices, with files to the ceiling can be found in every city, town or village where IEC was. Then, while the world was computerising, and the Indian government officials priding themselves of the fact that they had computer expects providing their services the world over, including the advanced West, India was still doing things manually, and Indians seemed not bothered to queue to register and vote. The story we got throughout our travels, was that the Indians of different social standing, saw their vote as one right they not only enjoyed but had more than a century, used effectively. And they use it, changing governments and state representatives regularly. While there are mainstream parties, no party has had monopoly of the Indian government.
Hence, the Indian politicians, unlike ours, are always on their toes. I have kept abreast with Indian politics, and not much has changed. Hundreds of millions, regardless of where they come from, still exercise that right. While I for one, never missed an opportunity to vote in my homeland, the Indian experience has taught me a great lesson: voting is one right to use, effectively, for it dictates my life.
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While such arguments can be understood, especially in today’s polarised political space, these unfortunately are the reason why we are not developing, politically, as a people. We fail to understand what our vote, individually, mean to the development of our country.
We do not get the fact that voting representatives, Members of Parliament, by extension the President who is elected by MPs; and also councillors, we are deciding our future. We don’t seem to understand that the very act of not casting a vote, is an act of voting. By abstaining from the vote, you are indirectly voting against your preferred choice. As they say: every vote counts; cast or not!
While appreciating the fact that the recent squabbles within the ruling party and the opposition coalition of the Umbrella for Democratic Change are leaving most despondent, and could be a major contributing factor to less people registering to vote, it should be the reason why many of us should be eager to vote. The simple reason being a voter has the power to decide and change the leadership direction, within political parties, and in the national sphere. If I find that the bickering in my party is causing damage to the national agenda, I can use my vote to change or maintain the government.
In developed democracies, we have seen card-carrying party members, voting for candidates of the opposing party, whenever the need arises. It is empowered and politically educated electorate who put the national interests above partisan politics. In our small nation where in most cases, we know the candidates personally, we should be better informed to vote wisely.
If we are politically knowledgeable, not partisan to a fault, we can vote for the right individuals, or parties with better policies. But we can only do that if we are registered to vote. And the deadline is upon us, November 11. In two weeks’ time, the registering ends, and we cannot move with the hope for supplementary registration because it is not guaranteed. So let’s rise, and do right for the future of our country, register to vote.