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Not exercising the right to vote is very much a right

columns Updated: Nov 16, 2014 14:26 IST
Karan Thapar


Should voting be compulsory? You may think that’s a strange question but it’s also a very interesting one, as I hope to reveal. Second, you can argue convincingly on both sides of this question although I would say one has decidedly more weight. That adds to my interest in this matter, which I hope you will share.

The argument in favour of compulsory voting rests on the assertion that in a democracy voting is a duty and its corollary that the greater the number of people voting the richer and, therefore, the better the quality of that democracy. Therefore, making this duty compulsory seems a logical thing to do.

If democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people then, ipso facto, the greater the involvement of the people the truer and purer the democracy that will emerge. That sounds simple but is it convincing? Wait and see.

The case against comprises two parts. In a democracy the size and scale of India compulsory voting is impractical. India has 83 crore or 830 million voters. If 10% choose not to vote could you really impose fines, leave aside jail terms, on such a large number? We’re talking eight crore or 80 million. And if you go by the voter turnout in May, the number that would have to be punished for not voting jumps to 28 crore, that’s 280 million!

No doubt democracies like Australia, Belgium and Switzerland have compulsory voting. But they are small and the consequence of failing to vote can easily be handled and contained. In India, it would magnify to monstrous proportions.

However, the greater argument against compulsory voting is in terms of its constitutionality. Here I have two points to make. First, voting is a right which automatically entails the right not to exercise it. To make my point clear let me put it like this: can you really make it compulsory for someone to exercise his rights if he doesn’t want to? In a democracy that would be contradictory!

Second, voting is an extension of the fundamental right of free expression, which intrinsically includes the right to silence. Forcing me to vote would breach that freedom. After all, the right not to vote is equal to the right to vote for those who choose not to!

But there’s a problem here. Well-established freedom-upholding democracies like Australia, Belgium and France (at the senate level) have compulsory voting and, therefore, don’t worry about the implied breach of freedom of expression. Either they don’t care, which is unlikely, or, clearly, there are two views about this.

Now, I’m confident the Gujarat government’s decision to make voting compulsory in local body elections will be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court. The key question is whether judges will see this as a right that cannot be made compulsory or as a duty that needs to be enforced. I can’t wait to find out.

Meanwhile, as soon as the rules are framed, the people of Gujarat will be forced to vote in local elections. But what would be the penalty if they fail to do so?

If there’s no penalty there’s hardly any compulsion. If the penalty is minor and insignificant many might not worry about it. But if it’s truly stringent it might disproportionately hurt the poor and the disadvantaged, a majority of our country. So what will it be?

The Gujarat government has still to make a decision. It’s not going to be an easy one.

The views expressed by the author are personal