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Compulsory voting not the solution in a democracy

December 24, 2009 10:49 IST

For decades, people have argued that the problem with the electoral system in India is that candidates/parties are winning with smaller and smaller shares of the popular vote. So, while the Congress party ruled with less than 30 per cent of the popular mandate in the earlier years, parties are in power with even less. The problem has got further accentuated with coalition politics now having become a way of life in the country, at both the central as well as state levels.

The solution, proposed by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, is to have compulsory voting at the local body level -- presumably, if the results are to Modi's liking, he would like this to be done at the central level presuming the Bharatiya Janata Party comes back to power and that, within that setup, he counts for something. It is ironic, of course, that Modi should be finding ways to give bureaucrats the power to harass citizens who choose not to vote, considering that Gujarat's USP over the years has been that its bureaucrats try to keep out of people's hair. But there is a lot more that is wrong with the proposal.

For one, it stems from a fundamental disagreement with the current system of electing candidates in the country -- namely that the person with the most votes wins, whether this is the minority vote or the majority vote is irrelevant. Once Mr Modi makes voting mandatory, it is only a short step to saying that a minimum proportion of votes will be required for the winner to be declared elected and that, in turn, will have its implications as far as the number of people who can possibly contest.

The other issue, of course, is whether people want to vote at all. In Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, despite all the protection that the army provides at the time of the elections, there is obviously the fear of the militants taking offence when people vote -- it is hardly fair to force people to vote when even the army is often unable to guarantee safety of the voter's life. Modi thinks he has a solution to the problem of voters facing a limited choice in the concept of a negative vote -- that is, if a voter goes to the booth and decides no candidate is worth voting for, she can just tick on the 'none of the above' symbol.

But if that is okay, what's wrong with voters staying at home since that is as clear a vote for 'none of the above' as anything else? If Modi and other politicians want citizens to vote, they'll have to do better than this, they'll have to perform well enough for voters to come out to ensure they stay in power. And even if they want those who can't stand them to come out and vote, they'll have to convince them that they will not be singled out and punished later. That's the democratic way.