While the two Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh hold relatively little importance in terms of seats when it comes to Lok Sabha election compared to other big states, the nine seats in these states may well prove to be decisive if no single party gets an absolute majority. These two states happen to be the only ones in India with servicemen comprise more than one per cent of total voter base. What’s more, almost 10 per cent of the 2.5 million ex-servicemen in the country reside in these two states.
Service voters as defined by the Election Commission of India (ECI) include three broad categories of voters — armed force personnel, armed police personnel of a state serving outside the state, and government employees posted outside India (mainly Indian Foreign Service officials, embassy staff and their families). Service voters cast their vote through postal ballots, unlike other Indians who queue up outside polling booths to vote on an Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). Uttarakhand goes to the polls in the first phase of elections on April 11, while Himachal Pradesh does so in the last on May 19.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeatedly mentioning ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘air strikes’ in his election speeches, and invoking the death of CRPF jawans in Pulwama, things could take an interesting turn in both Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The inauguration of the National War Memorial in Delhi by Modi earlier this year, with a large number of ex-servicemen in attendance, could further boost Modi’s and, therefore, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) appeal among this class of voters.
While service voters comprise 1.4 per cent of all voters in Himachal Pradesh, their share of total in Uttarakhand is 1.2 per cent. As was evident from funeral processions of killed soldiers in their home towns, the influence of armed forces and feelings of nationalism and patriotism run high in areas that contribute a significant number of young men and women to India’s armed forces. According to the Indian government, there were almost 120,000 and 110,000 ex-servicemen in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, respectively.
Of the nine constituencies in these two states, the most crucial parliamentary constituency when it comes to service voters is Garhwal in Uttarakhand. Almost three per cent of all voters here are service voters. There were 36,956 service voters in Garhwal in the 2014 general elections. Of the 14 Assembly constituencies in Garhwal, service voters formed almost five per cent of the total voters in three of them — Chaubattakhal, Landsowne and Karnaprayag.
Garhwal is followed by the Kangra and Hamirpur parliamentary constituency in Himachal Pradesh, and Almora in Uttarakhand, when it comes to high proportions of service voters. They comprise almost two per cent of total voters in Kangra and 1.9 per cent in Almora and Hamirpur. There are almost 23,500 service voters on an average in these three constituencies. Among all high service voter constituencies, it is probably Almora that has Assembly constituencies with the highest proportion of service voters. In the Didihat Assembly constituency of Almora, service voters form almost six per cent of the electorate.
While the two Himalayan states have a high proportion of service voters, a considerably large number of service voters can also be found in more populous states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana. These are the only states that had over 100,000 service voters on their rolls. But more than service voters, it is the votes of ex-servicemen and their families that could favour the BJP in certain states. Five states in India — Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra — have a total of 1.3 million ex-servicemen, almost half of all ex-servicemen in the country. Additionally, there are almost 300,000 ex-servicemen in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The BJP’s election manifesto starts off with a wide range of promises specifically targeted at national security and soldiers’ welfare. Among others, these include planning for the resettlement of soldiers three years before their retirement, in accordance with their preferences, provision for skills training, soft skills training, financial support for higher education, housing and for starting an enterprise. The highlight of BJP’s national security promise is its ‘zero tolerance’ policy that would give a “free hand to security forces in combatting terrorism.” BATTLE OF MANIFESTOS