By Vishakha Mathur
From the power in the hands of the people to being the very basis of democracy, voting has time and again been supported as a right instead of a privilege or a duty. However, the recent call taken by the Gujarat government to make voting compulsory (which later got struck down by the High Court) is a move indicating the changing nature of state power strangling the citizens with their own rights.
Should government force citizens to vote?
This brings us to evaluate, if at all, it is desirable for the government to argue a case for themselves in order to force voting upon people. The whole discussion and debate for compulsory voting starts with dwindling voter turnout which not only reflects on the health of democracy through contemplating the lack of interest among those who the elections directly affect, but also exaggerates the imbalance of interests. How this primarily happens is when a certain section of the citizen body votes, they vote to further their own interests and as these interests get represented in the government, they are able to take their interests way forward while neglecting the rest of the population. This majorly hurts the progress of a nation, thus calling for a greater voter turnout.
The government also seeks to argue that compulsory voting is not an infringement of the rights of the people and is, in fact a duty. How is this? This is justified by stating that even though one is dragged out of his house against his will to vote, it is beneficial to himm in the larger context and is not something that harms the individual directly. Thus, it is argued that it is not all that difficult to make it out on an election day but due to lack of motivation within people, it has come to compulsory voting.
Complimenting this argument is to say that citizens cannot merely be freeloaders. They cannot just sit in their house waiting and commenting on elections results, waiting to earn some benefits, when they have made absolutely no effort to deserve them. Voting, thus, becomes the primary responsibility of a citizen to do good for himself and for the society.
In the lieu of recent voter turnout of 45% in the Bangalore’s BBMP elections, it is imperative for the government to figure out a way to get more citizens motivated enough to vote instead of enjoying a day off from work and compulsory voting seems the way forward. But lets look back to understand, if that really is the case.
What are the problems with compulsory voting?
Voting was given as suffrage in initial democratic years to everyone who deserved to be a part of the system and wanted to bring change for the betterment of the society. One has to understand the concept of rights here. These were given to the citizens to ensure that they still remain the decision making body and no one and nothing forces them to do something against their will, with/without a third party harm. Since voting is one of the essential rights that people have, making it compulsory is an infringement and not a small one at that.
I understand this as a direct attack on democracy. I can only imagine the kind of snowballing effect this will create. Today, arguing on the shoulder of a small infringement, the government seeks to take away the right to vote and make it a duty, in a later time we can expect them to take many such actions that won’t hurt a third person and thus are acceptable. But the truth is that like this one, all of those steps will create a major backlash because they do hurt. They hurt the very bedrock of democracy, they hit the principles on which democracy stands, thus deviating from norms that make voting a “right” and not a “duty”, simple deviating from the model of democracy.
Government can, but it should not force citizens to vote
Although, the government can force its citizens to come and vote, it has to understand that this does not yield legitimacy to the elections. The root cause of low voter turnout is not because people are not interested, it is because either people are not aware or they are for any of the contenders standing in the elections. In such a scenario, this move will almost backfire when citizens will destroy the sanctity of the ballot by simply coming out to vote but not actually giving much thought to who they want to see win. This again, defeats the purpose of elections and this is not what India needs. India needs an inspiration, a wave of awareness, much like during the 2014 General Assembly Elections which came out to be whooping 66%+. This was because people themselves wanted to participate in creating a change and not because they were forced to.
Going back to our roots, our freedom fighters like Mahatma Gandhi, Dada Dharmadhikari etc. claimed that voting is a right for the people to express themselves and select their own representatives. This means that as and when they don’t feel satisfied with what they see, there is no compulsion for them to go out and caste their opinion. Thus, instead of bulls, the government as well as the Election Commission of India should figure out another method of motivating the voters to come out instead of laying back, to develop a more proactive approach. Some have suggested NOTA (None of the above) but this raises a whole debate of what happens if NOTA is in majority and not a candidate?
There are a lot of questions that the government needs to answer in order to make the voting system more efficient and on the same path, develop models to do so but compulsory voting, definitely does not seem like a good fit for India.