Gujarat has taken a bold step for making voting compulsory for all local bodies in the Sate. Though similar laws exist in more than 30 countries, which include Australia, Belgium and Singapore, the Gujarat Bill is the first of its kind in India. The Bill when made into law will be applicable to Gujarat’s seven municipal corporations, including Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot, 159 Nagar Palikas, 26 zilla panchayats, 224 Taluka panchayats and more than 13,700 gram panchayats.
The Gujarat Government says that its aim is to make the neutral voter, with no personal interests, politically conscious and encourage him or her to vote. It says, “It is Gujarat’s reply to those who carry out candlelight marches and drawing room politics but do not go to vote.”
The intention behind making the process mandatory is to bind the people of the State to some responsibility and, thus, strengthen the process of democracy. According to the Bill, voting for none of the candidates would be one of the options.
Whatever we do in life there will always be opposition. Some will oppose our convictions for genuine reasons while others will do so because they feel threatened. Political rivals of the Gujarat Government have called the move to make voting mandatory a gimmick and have questioned its ethical basis.
An Opposition party member has said, “How can a right be enforced as a duty? It’s in violation of fundamental rights … Moreover, making it (voting) compulsory for an unaware voter who does not know about party ideology will mean undesirable consequences where the value of a genuine vote would be diluted… But the issue to vote or not to vote is itself an ideological one. In a democracy one has the right to be indifferent and abstain from voting as well.”
Another strange argument that has been offered is that compulsory voting will ‘lower’ the spirit of democratic and political process! Some others have asked, and strangely so, for favours in return of compulsory voting. Their warped logic goes: “There is no package of guarantees in the Bill, like right to employment or food… Then what is the state asking for when it is offering so little or nothing?” The biggest problem in our country is that there are too many opinions — everybody, no matter whether informed or ill-informed, has an opinion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Gujarat Bill. In fact, it should serve as a template for other States to follow.
The Bill in its present form does not propose any penalties to ensure compulsory voting. In some countries where voting is compulsory, in order to be eligible for Government facilities, citizens have to show a certificate that affirms that they have voted in the last election. The logic that voters are unaware of political ideologies does not hold water. In fact, it is the other way around as it is the educated, upper-class people who are indifferent to voting.
I have been casting my vote from 1962 when I became eligible to be registered as a voter. In the last election, in the highly educated constituency of New Delhi, I went to cast my vote at about 11:30 am. I asked the polling officer the number of people who had come to vote. He said that among the officers class, both retired and serving, I was the first to do so. But he was all praises for ordinary folk who had made a beeline outside the polling booth even before the commencement of voting. At the end of the election, when the results were declared, the polling percentage was the lowest in New Delhi Constituency.
If looked at objectively, the Gujarat Bill leaves a lot of room for a citizen to express his or her dissatisfaction with the selection of candidates with the ‘none of the above’ option. What is compulsory is that the person has to come to the polling station and either express or not express his or her preference for any of the candidates. The Bill, when passed, will actually help create political awareness as when people know that they have to vote or express their disapproval of the candidates, they will automatically try and have an understanding of the existing political situation to make an informed choice.
In all fairness, the Gujarat Bill needs to be given a chance. There is no doubt that the Bill can be improved through experience when passed into law. It could eventually include grounds for exemption, like for instance when a person is in hospital or on a trip overseas and cannot make it to a polling booth. There should also be provisions such as postal vote, pre-poll vote, provisional vote, and absentee vote or voting for none. It would be desirable to have some penalty for deliberately not voting.
Compulsory voting is bound to improve the standards of our democracy. It will also negate vote-bank politics to a certain extent. It will truly make every vote count. A high voter turnout is vital for proper democratic endorsement of the Government and efficient functioning of our democracy. Activists throughout the last century have fought and died for enfranchisement. We should respect their sacrifice by voting.
Having a law that will make voting compulsory will make our democracy stronger. It will help emphasise the ideal that each voter is a stakeholder in the democratic process. Making voting compulsory in elections to civic bodies is a stand that deserves to be supported wholeheartedly. This will help in arresting the gradual decline in voting percentage in elections, as has been witnessed during Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha polls across the country. It would be worthwhile to learn from the Gujarat experience and extend compulsory voting throughout the country and for all elected bodies involved in the task of governance, including Parliament and State Assemblies. Besides, it must be remembered that if democracy ensures our fundamental rights, it also enjoins on us certain fundamental duties. This fact must not be lost on us.
There are bound to be those who will oppose the move. But that should not deter us from adopting a law which, if implemented in its true spirit, will further the case for participatory democracy. If other democracies which have tried compulsory voting are not complaining, the least we can do is give the initiative a fair chance.