Cast your vote or else...
Elections to local governments in India have been marked by a recent phenomenon, yet one that is slowly gathering steam. Attempts are being made to make voting mandatory in some states, with varying penal provisions being introduced to get citizens to the booth. Gujarat was one of the earliest states to introduce a legislation on compulsory voting for elections to municipalities and panchayats, a move that was stayed by the Gujarat High Court recently pending further hearing. The southern state of Karnataka slipped in the mandatory voting provision through an amendment to its Panchayati Raj Act applying it for the first time during the recent gram panchayat elections in May-June. Gujarat has also introduced an ordinance for elected representatives and candidates contesting polls to vote or face disqualification.
This isn't a case of a one-off state trying to exercise its muscle but an issue that has reached the national stage. Two private member bills referred to as the Compulsory Voting Bill, 2014 have been introduced by BJP MPs Janardhan Singh Sigriwal and Varun Gandhi respectively, to make a case for mandatory voting. Two previous bills to this effect were dismissed in 2004 and 2009. The US too has been rife with a similar debate ever since President Barack Obama in an address in Cleveland in March mooted the idea stating that "it would be transformative if everyone voted".
It is ironical that two of the world's largest democracies, India and the US are deliberating over mandatory voting at a time when European, Nordic and developing countries which have dabbled with it have long begun abolishing the provisions. Spain and the Netherlands were among the first to abolish the clause, even as Austria, Venezuela, Chile and Fiji followed suit.
The issue is fraught in polarities. Opponents dismiss mandatory voting as undemocratic and dictatorial. The Election Commission of India in reply to a public interest litigation had gone so far as to say that making voting compulsory violated the freedom of speech and expression. The Law Commission too held forth this opinion in its 'Report on Electoral Reforms' submitted to the Ministry of Law and Justice in March. "The Law Commission does not recommend the introduction of compulsory voting in India and in fact, believes it to be highly undesirable for a variety of reasons described...such as being undemocratic, illegitimate, expensive, unable to improve quality political participation and awareness, and difficult to implement," it stated.
Legislators who have participated in recent parliamentary debates however, perceive it differently. They propose that mandatory voting is an effective measure to improve political participation through better voter turnouts. Further, it deepens electoral legitimacy, they argue. The practice, it is suggested, could also bring an end to the illegalities political parties indulge in to woo voters to the booths.
The experience of other countries however, reveals the complexity in enforcement. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance counts 20-odd countries across the globe as embracing mandatory voting provisions including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil and Greece, though not all enforce them. Enforcement mechanisms could range from imposing penalties and social sanctions to disenfranchisement in extreme cases. Australia and Belgium impose a fine on defaulting voters, while Singapore strikes defaulters off the voting rolls barring them from subsequent elections, with a few exceptions. In Peru defaulting voters are denied access to certain public goods and services and in Bolivia they are not entitled to receive their salaries for three months. Belgium meanwhile disqualifies public servants from promotion, if they fail to vote.
Moving beyond the ideological debate, it is worth pausing to question whether India's electoral machinery has the wherewithal to implement such a mammoth exercise. Evidently not, if the repeated errors on electoral rolls are any indication. The Dinesh Goswami committee on electoral reforms dismissed mandatory voting way back in 1990 on precisely this ground-of practical difficulties involved in implementation. Even a country as small as the Netherlands (roughly the size of Delhi) cited difficulties in pulling up defaulters in practice while abolishing its provision. In Karnataka where compulsory voting was applicable for the first time in the panchayat polls, no enforcement mechanism was put into place. Gujarat in its recently notified rules has introduced a fine of Rs 100 for voters who default in upcoming local body elections in October, with ten categories such as senior citizens or migrants being exempted.
Moreover, India is yet to build the level of infrastructure that facilitates voting before we think of introducing such punishing measures. All adults aren't reflected on the electoral rolls. Mechanisms such as e-voting, mobile voting or proxy voting as available in the Netherlands and United Kingdom which facilitate voting for migrant workers and out-of-home students are still a pipe dream. Merely extending voting hours itself presents a logistical nightmare, for the resources it would require.
It is then pertinent to question why our democratic energy is wholly focused on elections to the exclusion of other institutional mechanisms of citizen engagement. Isn't engaging in urban ward committees and area sabhas or rural gram sabhas as crucial to a vibrant democracy?
Moreover, why should punitive measures solely be directed at citizens? As MP Bhagwant Mann argued on the floor of the Lok Sabha when one of these bills was being heard on April 24, why shouldn't there be a penalty on political parties if they fail to live up to their manifesto promises.
Now that is sure matter for another debate.
(A version of this blog was first published as an Op-Ed in The Times of India on August 27, 2015)
About Madhavi Rajadhyaksha
Madhavi Rajadhyaksha is Lead-Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships at CDLG, Avantika Foundation. She is a development professional and journalist with nearly a decade of experience. She works on conceptualizing and operationalizing advocacy strategies for the Centre for Decentralised Local Governance and is involved in strengthening methodologies (curriculum, dissemination and training tools) for scale up and advocacy of the research frameworks of CDLG. She was previously Manager-Advocacy with Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a Bangalore-based urban governance organisation and has spent over seven years as a development journalist with The Times of India in Mumbai where she wrote on a wide array of development issues, particularly public health, governance, gender, labour and migration, demographics and social policy. She h Blogs a Masters degree (Development Studies) from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (2010) and a postgraduate diploma in journalism from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, India (2005).
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