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Forcing people to vote is a good idea

December 23, 2009 15:33 IST

The arguments against making voting compulsory do not hold water, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

The Gujarat government's enactment of a law which makes voting compulsory in all elections save the legislative and parliamentary elections has drawn mixed reactions. They range from acceptance of the norm, lauding it even with caveats that it is impractical.

That Narendra Modi is the architect of this idea has not led to it being debunked. That it has not been seen through the 'communal prism' through which most politically correct people view Gujarat and him.

If at all, it has been seen so far on its merits. A good idea from a dubious source does not necessarily render an idea bad.

Let me recount a few of them but my list is not exhaustive:

Some objections

One: it is not practical.

Two: that it is anti-democratic to force people to vote.

Three: It has a punitive element in it so it is bad.

Four: it amounts to authoritarian move and makes elections something akin to what happens in the people's democracies of Communist regimes, not a liberal regime.

Before explaining why I buy the Modi-sponsored Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill 2009 now approved by the legislature on December 19, let me rebut the fourth grievance about the law.

It is not going to promote the 'people's democracy' of totalitarian regimes for there the choices are limited to one political party. In India, it is limited, of late, to one kind of candidates though they come, save few honourable exceptions, from diverse parties. They are the moneyed dynasts, with backing of other vested interests.

Poor turnouts

And they run all the way to the bank -- in this case, the elected body -- because they have the support of only a minority to get there in the first-past-the-post pattern of elections we have. Three serious contenders and with a 60 per cent turnout means a candidate with less than a fifth of the votes in a constituency can romp home. Poor turnouts give room for poor representation.

By having all to vote, that is, those who are eligible to vote voting, don't you deepen democracy, widening the participation?

Asking people to participate in a system of voting which has been constitutionally accepted by the country, which has made the country a liberal democracy, having held the first elections under adult franchise when people could not even read the names of the parties but needed, being illiterate mostly, symbols to pick their choices, is quite right.

60 years, no change

If for six decades and more, the country's citizens have not taken the responsibility seriously enough, and where on an average, the voter turn out is just about 60 per cent, then serious steps are called for. After all, with lower turnout and apathy of the non-voter who prefers any excuse like a break to get away or watch a cricket match, correctives are called for.

That most voters who stay away from voting are from the urban, educated middle classes is reason enough why this law should be enforced well in Gujarat and then the rest of the country can take a call, if required, by tweaking it around to make it practical. When the first general elections were held, there was widespread misgiving about the exercise. Had we not held that elections at all, where would we have been?

It has a punitive element built in to secure compliance and that is acceptable to me, the logic flowing from my argument in the preceding paragraph dealing with point # 4. After all, no one is being beheaded. The rules to be framed under the enactment would probably limit the privileges and facilities, like perhaps neutralising the ration card etc. No privileges if you don't take your duty seriously. That is the one way the educated cynic can be bridled from his excesses of not voting. It is a small price being asked. It does not make the state authoritarian at all.

Not anti-democracy

It is not anti-democratic. It deepens democracy because the law makes it voter-centric. The option "none-of-the-above" (NOTA) on the ballot serves two purposes. One is lets the voter say that he is disgusted with the list of candidates who are by and large part of big rackets involving money, favours and cronyism. He can express his disgust instead of lamenting about poor options and not voting.

That NOTA is good enough to rattle the political parties and individuals because the voter overcomes the Hobson's choice factor. The cynical voter has no excuses left and if more and more use the NOTA option, perhaps there could be a creeping change in the quality of the candidates?

Test it

It is not practical? Who can say that even before the pudding is made? One needs to give it a fair try, and if required, make suitable alterations so that the law is made to work. If elections could be managed near-perfectly in India, this too can be managed quite well, thank you!

Way back in 1911, Australia had made laws for compulsory voting and it was brought into effect first in Queensland in 1915. How it has worked or not worked is a matter of study and I am sure people would start looking at it soon enough. Likewise, with the rest of the 31countries which are supposed to have had it in place by now.

From my point of view, it is a good thing to have happened. Whether or not it is practical or not, it is useful in that the Indian citizens would have some civic sense instilled in them.

Did I say civic sense? Yes, any duty as a citizen falls in the category of the civic domain, not just municipal. And it is high time that Indians have that quality ingrained in them for even six decades after gaining the much-sought and much-fought-for freedom from a tyrannical foreign rule, we do not think we have duties as citizens.

Quid pro quo

Let me trot out the usual but significant argument: if you do not realise that you have a duty in return for the rights and privileges conferred on you because you are a citizen of the country, then the rights and privileges are not yours. The too go hand in hand and it is as simple as it gets. One has to acknowledge that quid pro quo.

That quid pro quo has never been enforced because in a free democratic country, it is assumed, the rights include the choice not to participate in the due process which makes the country truly democratic. If I do not want to vote, the arguers say, it is my right not to. To me, that is unacceptable.

The minimum and the maximum involved is just a simple act but onerous. It is the one single duty which costs little except to walk up to the voting booth and make your preference known as to who should govern us seems not so important though that single step helps direct the course of a citizen's life for the next five years. Five years is the normal life of most elected bodies in India.

Mahesh Vijapurkar