Indians are generally believed to love elections. The latest law to emanate from Gujarat on compulsory voting may therefore be considered by some as superfluous. However,it shows that electoral reforms need not originate only from the singular fountain head of the Union government or the Election Commission of India. Since elections to panchayats and municipalities became mandatory after the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments,several improvements have been adopted in some of the states. For instance,the reservation of not less than half the seats and chairpersons positions for women has been adopted first in Bihar and now Himachal,Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Direct elections to the posts of mayors and municipal chairpersons is another,followed in Madhya Pradesh,Uttar Pradesh and now in Rajasthan. Improved procedures for rotation of reserved constituencies,election observers from the civil society,enforcement of candidates filing election expenses etc. have been brought about in some other states,without having to wait for wisdom from Delhi.
The latest law from Gujarat regarding compulsory voting is one such measure. Political scientists and scholars of election practices across the world may have some reservations about the credentials of the state in making such a prescription and its outcome. Thanks to newspaper reports,we now know there are 32 other countries with compulsory voting,of which in atleast 20,the system is enforced. So it is not such an outlandish idea merely because Gujarat has come up with it.
If local democracy has to have any future in this country,it has to depend on local participation. We have had three rounds of panchayat and municipal elections in most of the states in the country over the past 15 years. The turn out in many states has varied from 60 to 80 per cent which is much higher than in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Nevertheless of late,we are beginning to see a noticeable decline in turn out percentages. The most recent elections for the greater Hyderabad municipal corporation,held for the first time after the municipal area was enlarged to 625 skm merging 12 municipalities and much resistance,elicited a response only of 49 per cent. In contrast,the municipal elections in Madhya Pradesh which took place in December witnessed a turnout of 65 per cent. In Rajasthan it was about the same.
The outcome indicates that in the majority of cases,the winners have been elected on a minority of votes polled,which means a very small portion of the total electorate. Fatigue with elections,absence of worthwhile candidates,evidence about electoral malpractices,middle class apathy and disdain for politicians may all be cited as reasons,but not justifiable. Demands for accountability to citizens make no sense,if the citizens are not interested in exercising their choice.
There could be some misgivings about enforcing compulsory voting,the penalties to be visited on defaulters and the efficacy of adherence. But these are problems which can be overcome. After all the Election Commission of India as well as the state election commissions pride themselves on the enormous scale of their operations. They are fully entitled to the praise they receive but it is not beyond their prowess to set up and administer a compulsory voting system.
The Gujarat law also provides for a voter to cast his vote in favour of none of the candidates contesting. Electoral watch groups in India have been demanding such a provision for a negative vote. The Gujarat law is a more specific reiteration of what is contained in section 49(O) of the Conduct of Election Rules. At least in this respect,it should be welcome.
However,there are one or two points which should be considered. Gujarat has promoted the practice of samaras (Gujarati for consensus) panchayats whereby village panchayats are encouraged to elect their representatives and chairpersons by consensus rather than voting. A special grant of Rs. 60,000 to 100,000 is also offered to such panchayats which have avoided elections. It is reported that about 4,000 village panchayats have received such special grants. In several cases such consensus may be contrived. Gujarat cannot pursue compulsory voting on one hand and consensus election in the same breadth.
The Gujarat election law,undeniably,is a new initiative. The shortcomings and problems will become known only when the law is implemented. It does have the potential to enhance the representativeness of the councillors and panchayat members. Political parties will do well to study the operation of the law instead of taking pot shots at each other about who is right rather than what is right.
The writer is professor and chairman of the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi