Updated: November 12, 2014 12:03:24 am
The Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Act to make non-voting in local body elections a penal offence works against the spirit of democracy. There will be practical difficulties of implementation and enforcement, but essentially, the law violates a fundamental democratic principle — the right of the citizen to exercise her choice, including the freedom not to vote. The legislation appears to draw upon a conception of democracy that would reduce democratic engagement to the single act of voting. In India, moreover, electoral turnouts are embedded in a complicated social and political matrix in which several factors assume salience at different times, ranging from caste equations to the impact of wage and footloose labour. This law could become a coercive instrument in the hands of the state and increase citizens’ vulnerability to harassment by government.
The Gujarat government has shown remarkable persistence in pushing this illiberal legislation through — the bill was passed by the assembly five years ago but could not become law because the then governor, Kamla Beniwal, returned it, remarking that “forcing [the] voter to vote is against the principles of individual liberty”. Whatever be the reasons for the Gujarat government’s perseverance, such legislation is generally impelled by an anxiety over dwindling turnouts. The Indian experience, however, does not provide cause for such a worry. Unlike in the West, turnouts have risen in India over the years across class categories, including and especially in the poor and disprivileged. The democratic upsurge of the 1990s, which was triggered by political mobilisations around identity issues and the proactive measures by the Election Commission, has since stabilised at a reasonably healthy 50-60 per cent. Nor is high turnout always a sign of deepening democracy. The poor often queue up to vote because that is the only act of assertion available to them in a system that routinely disempowers them. Conversely, voters can be said to have revealed their political choice through the election boycott — be it in J&K, in the name of self determination, or to protest administrative apathy in Tamil Nadu villages.
Democracy cannot be upheld or strengthened by coercion — that would only drain it of its potential to transform and empower. If turnouts are to be bolstered, there is no alternative to the hard labour of politics. Meanwhile, the judiciary must strike down the Gujarat law for going against the constitutional guarantee of the freedom of expression.
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