The law notified by the Gujarat government to make voting in elections to local bodies compulsory is not a well thought out piece of legislation. The law misunderstands both the principle of free and fair elections and the very conditions under which millions of our citizens exercise their franchise.
One of the features of a democracy is that it entitles citizens to articulate a range of political commitments from deeply involved activism to outright apathy. And the nature of their commitment is, in turn, governed by many factors from philosophical disposition to calculations of personal gain.
While it is useful for voter turnouts to increase in order to get more representative verdicts, it cannot be done by enforcing what is essentially an elective social experience.
India's millions do not have the luxury of participating in politics actively on an everyday basis but they cannot be denied the chance to express their disenchantment with the options they have by not voting. Indeed the right to choose 'none of the above' on the ballot was devised with that sensibility in mind.
Voting is certainly a sign of empowerment but, sometimes, failing to vote in a fraught social setting can also be a form of protection which the State cannot always guarantee.
Gujarat's compulsory voting law has provisions for punishments that have come in for criticism. Election Commissioner HS Brahma wondered about its practicality asking if we can put eight crore voters in jail if, say, 10% of the 83 crore national electorate did not vote.
The state can ill-afford to criminalise millions and create a paper trail for such an 'offence' when it has other serious security issues to consider.
Compulsory voting also does not reckon with the millions who migrate to cities in search of work. What would their fate be if they were potentially expected to vote in elections at various levels? Would the urban poor be in a position to take a week off from work - usually without pay - and undertake the long journey home to vote each time an election cycle came around? Can our railways and road transport infrastructure cope with the mass migration that would ensue when the Election Commission announces dates? And can the Indian economy weather the disruptive effects of periodic mass desertion by the workforce?
The intent of Gujarat's law may be noble but its effects will be disastrous. There is really no need for punitive measures when the Election Commission is doing an impressive job to raise awareness through initiatives like the 'systematic voters' education and electoral participation' (SVEEP) campaign.