This appeared in The South Asian Times today.
The government of Gujarat has recently adopted an interesting Bill that makes voting compulsory in local body elections thereby making it the first state in India to do it. Which means all registered voters in Gujarat will be required to vote. No excuses, no backing out. Sounds rather unsettling on the surface. Those absent will be asked to submit a valid reason with proof and if the reason ain’t valid, it could lead to suspension of benefits. Love the idea. Reminds me of middle school. Love the public and political reaction to it even more. Reminds me of college. Apparently this move has come as a way towards eradicating electoral irregularities. Oh and of course eradicating the black money that buys votes (which is not going anywhere, if you ask me). Modi optimistically has termed it a “historic move to strengthen democracy”.
Supporters are so happy that they think it should be extended to Assembly and Parliamentary polls too. Wishful thinking? You never know. The Election Commission doesn't seem too convinced though and has termed the idea ‘impossible’. But an appalling statistic reveals that a staggering 40% of the voter population (30 crores out of 70 crores) is a no show on the big day. And then we complain. And we complain. And we complain some more. It seems to have become our favorite pass time to not contribute where we can and later feel helpless when unpleasant situations crop up. Sure voting is our right, and it should be discretionary by its very nature but when that right is not exercised, can't it be enforced and what is so wrong if it does get enforced?
Needless to say, it has been the cause of a major national debate. Some believe democracy and compulsion do not go hand in hand. Others believe less stricter options like educating the voters should be considered. But that education, even if in its understated form has been ongoing for decades and the results are there for us to see. It's been the same strategy on auto play. Engage the youth, particularly school and college students, get them to do street plays, distribute literature in economically backward areas, give a few TV and radio interviews and then what? Status quo.
It’s not an innovative idea. Some 32 countries have done it before and have witnessed a steep increase in their voter turnouts. I see a number of good things about it. It can be looked upon as an essential step to tackle the decline in voting. It has the potential of bringing people’s attention to politics which translates into better informed voters. The outcome would be really representative of the masses and not just a segment of the society and ultimately it would lead to better quality of decisions.
Like any new proposal, it has a not-so-bright aspect to it as well. First off, you’re infuriating that certain percentage of people who neither care not understand politics. Making it compulsory for them might do no good. Also, a good amount may vote with no knowledge or information about any candidates which can skew the numbers. In some sense, it is a denial of people’s freedom.
How practical and useful this decision turns out to be, remains to be seen. But for now, more power to people!