A Surya Prakash

Although there have been howls of protest over Gujarat’s path-breaking law to make voting compulsory in elections to local bodies, this is certainly a move that is worthy of serious examination. Those familiar with the behaviour of electors in the country over the last sixty years and the bizarre nature of electoral outcomes consequent to the emergence of dozens of regional and caste-based parties across the country over the last quarter of a century will vouch for the fact that all is not well with the present system of elections.
In the absence of compulsory voting, the first-past-the-post system, that is currently in vogue, has thrown up extraordinary results that completely negate the basic principle of representation of the people, namely that the representative chosen commands the support of a majority of the electors in his or constituency.
The FPTP has proved to be inadequate for a number of reasons. The first of these is that close to 40 per cent of the electors choose not to exercise their franchise, resulting in a direct impact on the outcome of an election. The next problem is the multiplicity of political parties and the perpetual splintering of existing parties, especially at the regional level. This has resulted in quadrangular if not five-cornered contests in every Assembly and parliamentary constituency among serious contenders, thereby resulting in a four or five-way split of the already depleted number of votes in the box. Such fragmentation of the votes polled leads to lowering of threshold for victory.
Election data show that such fragmentation of the vote results in MLAs and MPs winning their seats with the support of just 20 per cent of the electors in their constituencies. As a result, we do not have the foggiest idea of what actually is the mandate of the majority of the electors in a given constituency. This remains a mystery forever. What we have before us is actually the preference of a minority.
However, despite mounting evidence that most legislators in India today enter democratic bodies riding on a minority vote, politicians, who are the major beneficiaries of this systemic defect, are unwilling to address the issue and search for remedies.
There could be a variety of reasons for the prevailing inertia within the political class. It could be fear of change or plain self-interest that has prevented the political class from acknowledging this issue and undertaking an honest audit of the electoral system. To an extent, the in action of politicians is understandable but what is inexplicable is the attitude of the Election Commission of India.
Despite mounting evidence of the failure of FPTP to ensure the representativeness of individuals voted to power in each constituency and the representativeness of the parties voted to power in the States and at the Centre, the Election Commission has made no effort to start a debate on the failings of the current system or to come up with a prescription to apply correctives.
Instead, what we see is wild reactions from one Election Commissioner,¬† Harishankar Brahma, who asks if crores of electors who fail to vote will be put in jail! Mr Brahma obviously is not acquainted with the prevailing practices in other countries in this regard. The law in this regard need not be so stringent as to send someone to jail. For Mr Brahma’s benefit, here are some examples of how other countries ensure maximum voting in elections:
According to the Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance, as many as 33 countries across the world have made voting compulsory. Prominent among them are Belgium, Switzerland, Australia, Singapore, Argentina, Austria, Cyprus, Peru, Greece and Bolivia. Belgium set the ball rolling with the introduction of compulsory voting in 1892. Australia introduced it in 1924. We need to look at the laws pertaining to compulsory voting in all these countries and draft a law that suits our genius. The penalty that is imposed on violators of this law varies from nation to nation.
For example, in Australia, those who fail to turn up for voting are fined $20 to $50. Switzerland, Austria, Cyprus and Peru also impose fines on absentee voters.
In Belgium, repeated abstention by a voter can lead to disenfranchisement. In Singapore a citizen who does not vote is removed from the list of electors. Getting back on the voters’ list can be cumbersome. In Bolivia, the penalty for not voting in an election is a salary cut whereas in Greece, the penalty could be harsher conditions for securing a passport or a driving licence.
So, the Gujarat law is the first of its kind in the world. But, certainly, it’s the first such initiative within the country. We also need to incorporate this in Article 51A of the Constitution which deals with Fundamental Duties. Voting in elections must be made a fundamental duty. The right to vote must also become a duty to vote.
The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution¬† too has recommended something on these lines. It has said in its report that “duty to vote at elections” and active participation in the democratic process of governance “should be included in Article 51A”.
As regards to penalties for not voting, no body needs to go to the jail. The authorities can insist on proof of voting in the last election when renewing cards given to persons below the poverty line or at the time of renewing ration cards, driving licences or passports.
Those who fail to provide proof can be made to pay a fine. A poor citizen seeking renewal of his or her below the poverty line card can be asked to pay a small fine while those who come for renewal of passports can be made to cough up a bigger fine.
As this writer had said on an earlier occasion, the atomisation of the polity and the low turn-out of voters have reduced the democratic process to a complete sham. We can lend some authenticity to India’s democratic march by taking the difficult but inevitable decision to make voting compulsory.
In India, Gujarat has shown the way. If we fail to do so and allow the citizens the luxury of treating elections with contempt, the day may not be far off when forces inimical to democracy will use these very arguments to put an end to the charade that is currently on and snuff out what little is left of representative democracy in India.