The Gujarat government has decided to make voting compulsory in the municipal and panchayat elections later this year, implementing a controversial law that was criticised by activists as well as legal and poll experts.
This could be the first instance in the country of mandatory voting in civic elections involving millions of voters.
“Chief minister Anandiben Patel decided to go ahead with it in the local body elections. She felt that there was no point sitting over it after the assembly passed the law and the governor has given his nod,” a top state government official said.
Gujarat became the first state in 2014 to make voting compulsory in local polls after governor OP Kohli sanctioned the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2009, which was turned back by his predecessor Kamla Beniwal for reconsideration.
Beniwal contended that the proposed law violated Article 19(1)(A) of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, including the right not to vote.
The law was passed in 2009 and again in 2011 under then chief minister Narendra Modi’s watch, but the governor gave the approval in November 2014.
It empowers the state election commission to declare an absent voter as “defaulter”, except in case of illness or if he or she is out of station. It says an absentee voter will face penal action, without specifying the nature of punishment.
But state authorities said rules have been prepared for implementation of the law and to punish defaulters. “These will be announced shortly,” said the official. “All eligible voters will have to exercise their franchise.”
The decision came after a three-member ministerial group submitted its report on the pros and cons of executing the law. “It was suggested that mandatory voting can be introduced in some municipalities on an experimental basis. But the chief minister decided otherwise, saying it should cover the entire state,” the official said.
Constitution experts, lawyers and activists had criticised the BJP government in Gujarat for the controversial law, which it said was necessary to cut poor turnouts and make the democratic exercise stronger.
Former chief election commissioner HS Brahma called it impractical, asking what action would be taken if millions of people fail to vote.
Human rights lawyer Girish Patel said the law would affect poor people. “Migrant labourers and daily wage earners cannot sacrifice their livelihood to go and vote. Then again, if they don’t vote they will be caught in a legal tangle as criminal action will be taken against them.”
Senior Gujarat high court lawyer Nirupam Nanavaty said the law violated the Constitution. “A citizen cannot be compelled to vote. In a democratic system, such compulsion is anti-democracy.”