On the day newly-elected BJP president Nitin Gadkari was taking charge in New Delhi, another party leader was making news in Gujarat.
Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s government introduced the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill 2009 in the assembly on December 19, making voting compulsory in all local body elections in the state.
The Bill, which was passed by the House, has to get the governor’s nod before it becomes law.
Though similar laws exist in more than 30 countries, including Australia, Belgium and Singapore — some dating back to the 19th century — the Bill is the first of its kind in India.
Modi’s political rivals called it a gimmick. His critics have questioned its ethics.
Gujarat has seven municipal corporations, including municipalities in Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot; 159 nagar palikas, 26 zilla panchayats, 224 taluka panchayats and more than 13,700 gram panchayats.
“Our effort is to make the neutral voter, with no personal interests, conscious and participate in the voting,” Modi said, lashing out at people who carry out “candle light marches and drawing room politics” but “do not go to vote”.
“The intention of making the process mandatory is to bind the voters to some responsibility and thus strengthen the democratic process,” Modi said.
But opposition parties and civil society are questioning the motives behind the Bill.
“How can a right be forced as a duty? It’s in violation of fundamental rights ,” Congress’ Shakti Sinh Gohil, leader of Opposition in Gujarat, told Hindustan Times. “Moreover, making it compulsory for an unaware voter who does not know what party ideology means would lead to undesirable consequences, where the value of a genuine vote would be diluted.”
Interestingly, several ministers and Modi himself were absent at the time of the voting.
“It (the absence of ministers) speaks of the hypocrisy of the establishment here,” Mukul Sinha, a senior Gujarat High Court lawyer, said.
According to the Bill, voting for none of the candidates would be among the options. “But the issue to vote or not to vote is itself an ideological one. In a democracy one has the right to be indifferent and abstain from voting as well,” said Sinha, who is associated with the Jan Sangarsh Manch, an NGO fighting for the 2002 Gujarat riot victims.
Also, in a centralised polity like Gujarat, where political equations in state capital Gandhinagar often determine the outcome of local body polls and the bodies’ functioning, the effectiveness of compulsory voting is questionable, critics say.
Sociologist Shiv Viswanathan said compulsory voting would “lower the spirit” of democratic and political processes. “Is there any package of guarantees (in the Bill) like right to employment or food?” he said. “Then what is the state asking for when it is offering so little or nothing?”
But other voices in the state support the Bill and its philosophy.
“The Bill strengthens democracy,” said Yatin Oza, a senior Gujarat High Court lawyer. “As I can reject the candidates instead of being forced to choose a bad one, the parties will be compelled to put up a good person.”
The state’s urban development and panchayat departments are mulling over the clauses in the Bill that touch upon penalties or other measures in case a person does not vote.
Oza has some suggestions regarding this. “Apart from being denied government benefits such as subsidised health, education and LPG, defaulters should be barred from approaching courts in civil matters,” he said.
Nitin Patel, state minister for urban development and water resources, who introduced the Bill in the assembly, said, “Good people would contest instead of the mighty, powerful or relatives of leaders.”
Patel believes with compulsory voting political parties need not “spend lakhs of rupees in mobilising voters and taking them to booths”.
Opinion on the street is mixed too, though the idea of mandatory voting appeals to many people in the state.
“Voting should be compulsory,” said Baldev Soni, a retired mill worker from Ahmedabad. “Youngsters will also understand what politics and governance is all about,” he added.
Sameer Sheikh (30), an auto rickshaw driver, is not so sure. He said many reasons could prevent people from casting vote. “These reasons should be addressed. There should be no fine or punishment in any case,” Sheikh said.
“It (not voting) should not give an excuse to the government to take away our benefits,” Shakti Gohil, panchayat member of Jasapara village, Bhavnagar district, told HT on the phone.
If enforced, the Bill is set to change the way Gujarat votes.