An Act passed by the Gujarat legislature making voting compulsory in panchayat and municipal elections has raised a massive debate on the subject. In the din of the arguments for and against compulsory voting, a very momentous and laudable part of the Act reserving 50% seats for women has been completely lost.
The proposal for compulsory voting has been raised for years in response to chronic voter apathy, especially in urban areas. However, persuasion by education, rather than compulsion, is the answer. In fact, compulsion and democracy are the antithesis of each other.
And this principle is already well established in our laws. The ‘electoral right’ of a voter is defined in Section 171A(b) of the Indian Penal Code and in Section 79D of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to ‘mean the right of a person to vote or refrain from voting at election’. The decision to vote or not to vote is an individual’s decision in exercise of this right.
In the recent NOTA judgment, the Supreme Court has held that abstention from voting and negative voting are protected as freedom of expression — a fundamental right (PUCL vs Union of India, 2013). In April 2009, the Supreme Court had taken the same view, dismissing a plea to make voting mandatory on the ground that Indian governments had ceased to represent the majority because of low turnouts.
In any election, there will always be some who do not vote out of conviction or ideological reasons. More importantly, there are millions of daily wage earners who cannot afford to forego their wages. They cannot be called anti-State or anti-democracy and punished. Some are forcibly driven out of their homes by riots or natural disasters. How can they vote in their forced homelessness?
The major element which distinguishes democracy from authoritarianism is that it ensures people’s participation in election and the decision-making processes. A legitimate question arises: Can this participation be enforced? The enforcement can take people to the electoral booths, but it can’t ensure their votes. It may add to the voter turnout, but it will not enhance voters ‘participation’ in the democratic processes.
Even practically it is very difficult to implement compulsory voting, which pre-supposes some punitive action against defaulters. Even if 10-15% voters do not vote (as in countries where voting is compulsory) it would have 8-12 crore voters to be punished. The punishment has to be stiff enough to be a deterrent. Suggestions from a cross section range from withholding PAN card and driving licence to withdrawing ration card, BPL card, MGNREGA card, etc. A PIL in 2009 suggested disconnection of water and electricity that shocked the Supreme Court, which condemned these ‘inhuman methods’.
Even if a nominal punishment of, say, a fine of just Rs 1 is imposed, the due process of law has to be followed. Issuing notices to non-voters, giving adequate opportunity to them to explain why they did not vote, with supportive documents, giving them a hearing, and then, finally, write speaking orders, is not administratively feasible. In other words, it will mean crores of new court cases after every election (and there are at least three every five years). The lawyers will be delighted. And so will petty bureaucrats, always on the lookout for extortion opportunities.
Nothing can be more retrograde than even to think of withdrawing these facilities, which despite decades of efforts have not fully reached the people. This will also shatter the laudable goal of ‘minimum government’ — by letting loose an extortion mafia. The law could become a coercive instrument in the hands of the State and make citizens vulnerable to harassment by government and its officials.
The noble objective of enhanced voter participation can be best achieved through systematic voter education, amply demonstrated by the Election Commission of India (ECI) in the elections in 29 states between 2010 and 2014. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 66.4% voter turnout beat all previous records. Many states reached the threshold of 80% turnout. These included Nagaland (87.8%), Lakshwadeep (86.6%), Tripura (84.7%), West Bengal (82.2%) and Assam (79.8%). Our consistent assertion that motivation and facilitation, rather than compulsion, are the best ways to address the issue, has been clearly vindicated.
Compulsory voting started with Belgium in 1892, followed by Argentina (1914) and Australia (1924). Some countries like Venezuela and the Netherlands practised it at one time but have since abolished it. Currently, 19 countries have this provision but only nine enforce it. It is absurd to enact a law that you do not intend to enforce or know that you cannot.
It is amusing to see people citing examples of other countries selectively (eg Australia and Singapore). Why not mention the United States, the world’s greatest democracy (and the largest after India) and Britain, the mother of modern democracy? They have no compulsory voting despite low turnouts.
Anyway, let’s look at Australia, the most cited country. It is smaller in population (21.5 mn) than Haryana (25.5 m). Its literacy rate is 96%, poverty is negligible, and its voting period extends up to two months. And to collect a fine of A$ 20, they end up spending A$ 2,000. And after all that, the highest ever turnout is 92% (against Tripura’s 93%) of which 6% dropped a blank ballot. As for the other favourite example, Singapore, it is smaller than Karol Bagh (in Delhi). Well, India is a little bigger than that.
All these arguments notwithstanding, the issue should not be given a hasty burial. Buried it must be, but only after a healthy debate on the entire range of electoral reforms.
SY Quraishi, former CEC, is the author of An Undocumented Wonder — the Making of the Great Indian Election
The views expressed by the author are personal