By Divyat Rungta
Earlier this November, Gujarat Governor, O.P Kohli approved The Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill that makes voting in local and state elections compulsory. Gujarat thus became the first state in India to have incorporated compulsory voting. The Bill had been doing the rounds for a long period of time and was twice rejected by the Congress appointed governor Kamla Beniwal. The fact that the Bill was only approved after NDA appointed O.P Kohli replaced previous governor shows that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is fancying his chance of implementing compulsory voting at a national level, with party senior L. K Advani has openly supporting the move.
The most obvious argument in favor of compulsory voting is Increased voter turn out, which is often seen as a measure of the strength of a nation’s democracy. While many see compulsory voting as illiberal and an infringement of the right of freedom, historical evidence from countries with compulsory voting show that voter turn out does in fact increase over time. There are 26 countries in the world, including Australia, Brazil and Belgium that have made voting compulsory. Australia has been having a voter turnout of nearly 94% since compulsory voting was implemented in full force. The other arguments in favor of compulsory voting are reduced corruption and improved effectiveness of the NOTA, aspects which may or may not work in the desired manner particularly in India.
In status quo, political parties spend a lot of money on ‘encouraging voters’ to turn up and vote for the respective party pushing them to. This part of the election campaigns have black money written all over it, with poorer sections being given all sorts of doles. Compulsory voting will perhaps subside the need to carry out these measures and lead to a fall in black money. On the other hand, assuming every eligible voter will turn up to vote, parties may well increase their spending on such activities to garner votes. Mindsets of parties may well change, and every target group will be sought after for votes by unethical means.
The introduction of NOTA has brought up another interesting issue. What really will be the difference between not going to vote and pressing the NOTA button? The option of NOTA was introduced as a means to empower the citizen by offering the right to reject a candidate, and hence force parties to stand better candidates with respect to moral and criminal backgrounds. Assuming most eligible voters who in status quo did not vote as they were not satisfied by the possible choices, compulsory voting will force them to come out and press the NOTA button, thus transforming their mentality into registered data through NOTA votes. The efficiency of NOTA will greatly be increased in this case.The contrary argument is that enforcing compulsory voting may lead to voters to vote for a certain party since that voter is taking the effort to come up and vote. Considering a substantial rise in number of people coming out to vote, it will be extremely important each and every voter has complete information of the parties and makes an informed choice. It will be extremely easy to let the hook off on parties and allow them to go all out
There are also two major hurdles in a country as large and diverse as India that can turn compulsory voting for the worse.
Firstly, the punishments for not voting will have to be meticulously chalked out. Again, with such significant socio-economic difference across the country, herein lies a massive challenge. Australia has a system of fines for those who do not have valid reasons of not turning up to vote. If imposing fines is anything to go by, we have a dismal record of living up to it. Evading fines is not a tough task, and corruption will only increase. Simultaneously, establishing acceptable grounds for not voting and ensuring the guilty do not circumvent them will be a herculean task at a macro level.
Secondly, if every constituency is to have voting on a single day, that will mean a near bandh for the entire day, including public transport to ensure government workers also have the opportunity to vote. Conducting single day voting in each constituency will be extremely unfeasible, and hence elections will have to be carried out over several days for each constituency, leading to significant logistical costs. Furthermore, there exist several remote areas where the nearest polling booths are present at far off places. The reach of polling booths will have to increase significantly to ensure people at such places do not incur heavy costs on physically reaching the booths. The logistics to ensure the remaining 30-40% population who did not turn up previously to come and cast their vote will not be mean task.
To conclude, India is definitely not ready to face the challenges of enforcing compulsory voting. It is quite understandable the BJP government looks keen on tapping the ‘neutral voter’s vote’, but implementing such a drastic step in India has a good chance of back firing. There is no doubt a need to get the voter turn out percentage up from the late 60s mark, but for the next general elections, the Election Commission can look to positively campaign for higher voter turnouts, while the BJP can see the Gujarat-model as a litmus test.
Divyat Rungta is currently a second year student pursuing B.A Economic (Hons) in Shri Ram College of Commerce. He is a die-hard sports lover and enjoys listening to Indie music. He has been deeply influenced by his parents, teachers, and the Indian Army! As a member of Enactus SRCC, he spends a lot of time working on social entrepreneurship projects undertaken by the team. Having the opportunity to interact with various communities and give them a sustainable livelihood has made a huge impact in his personal life. He strongly believes the student community has the responsibility of shaping a new India, and wants to make a significant contribution to it.