February 2010
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My vote and I

Two debates tend to tail into periodic appraisals of how to deepen our democracy. One lingers on voter turnouts at elections. It celebrates rising turnouts in different parts of the country — for instance, just this weekend turnout was almost 60 per cent in the last phase of the Jharkhand assembly elections, that too in territory that includes many Maoist strongholds. The takeaway is that this faith in electoral democracy is about more than statistics at the polling booth, it is a call to unknot the string that runs through processes to make legislators accountable and those to make politics responsive through meaningful decentralisation.

The other debate intersects the first tangentially, and centres on the choices voters could rightfully have — could they, for example, obtain the right to reject the fray, or even to recall elected representatives? Alert to the populist consequences of such direct democratic practices, many have argued that perhaps the best instrument for a voter to register dissatisfaction is the right not to vote. It is in this wider context that the Gujarat assembly’s okay to a bill to make voting compulsory in local bodies must be assessed. The state’s urban development minister insists that the main point is not to punish the “defaulter voter” but to encourage the voter “to spare some time to exercise his right to vote”. But is this the right way?

The argument for compulsory voting is that it establishes the vote as an entitlement — employers would have to give voters time off to go vote, election authorities would be liable for getting a voter on to the electoral rolls. And overall, the final decision would presumably be as close as possible to determining the will of the majority. That may be all to the good — though in India we already have provisions to ensure voters get time off to exercise their franchise — but in balance compulsory voting is too problematic a concept. It is distinctly undemocratic to coerce a citizen to do something (vote) which, by the very definition of democracy, is supposed to be based on free will. That is, the right not to vote must remain a democratically obtained right. And if politicians want high turnouts, it’s their job to mobilise the electorate.

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