April 19, 2010 1:44:14 am
In December 2009,the Gujarat assembly passed a legislation making voting compulsory in local self governance bodies,and empowering the legislature to pass rules to penalise non-voters. Now comes news that the Gujarat governor has returned the bill,on the ground that its provisions violate the Constitution.
The idea of compulsory voting has been studied extensively as part of efforts to make elections reflect literally the will of the majority. But these proposals have always come up against a most basic question: how democratic is compulsory voting? The simplest argument in favour of compulsory voting is that it causes little inconvenience. Besides,compulsory voting may be viewed,not as a burden,but as an entitlement. Bosses,for instance,would have to give employees time off to exercise their franchise. Making voting mandatory would also remove any structural impediments that may dissuade certain sections from exercising their franchise. But it is the third argument that is the most compelling: at a time of low voter turnouts and disenchantment with the electoral process,the law will bolster legitimacy in our frail democracy.
Yet,coercion and democracy cannot go hand in hand. The right to dissent by not voting is in itself democratic. Forcing people to turn out to vote are rituals more common to authoritarian states; they go against the grain of our well entrenched electoral mores. And on question of legitimacy,turnouts in Indian elections today are not low,by global standards. In fact in recent elections they have been rising. However,the bottomline is this it is the job of candidates and political parties to campaign amongst the electorate to plead their agenda and even to convince voters to turn out in their support. If a voter chooses not to show up on election day,that is her right.
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