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Compulsory voting : How far is it feasible?

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By Dr. Munish Kumar Raizada

In November last year, Gujarat became the first Indian state to pass a bill making voting in the local body elections compulsory. With O.P. Kohli as the new Governor in office, the Bill managed to get the Governor’s assent in the third attempt. Even though the Bill was passed by Gujarat legislative assembly as early as 2009, Kamla Beniwal had rejected it twice during her tenure as the Governor of Gujarat, drawing sharp reactions from many quarters. Now with elections to as many as 315 local self-governments due in October this year, the state Government is likely to notify this bill (hence, making into a law) just well in time.

A number of experts doubt the constitutional validity of compulsory voting and consider it a violation of the Article 21 of the Constitution of India which guarantees personal liberty. On the other hand, the supporters of this legislation point out that people can still have their personal liberty by choosing to vote for NOTA (None of The Above) and rejecting all the candidates. Kapoor Committee – set up by Gujarat state government – did invite suggestions from the public on the magnitude of penalty or punishment for those evading voting. However, we shall have to wait on the exact quantum of punishment as spelled out in the law.

Where else is this provision?

Presently, approximately 26 countries in the world enforce compulsory voting in one way or the other. The major nations among these include Argentina, Brazil, Singapore and Australia. Notwithstanding their national laws which make ‘not voting’ a punishable offence, most of these countries haven’t been able to enforce the punishments effectively. Some of these nations, such as Australia and Brazil, accept valid reasons, such as sickness or non-availability, for skipping to vote. In Brazil, failing to vote would debar you from getting a passport, whereas in Bolivia, you won’t be able to withdraw your salary from the Bank for a period of 3 months, if you fail to vote!

vote-661888_640According to many experts, a considerably low voter turnout in the local elections was the key driving force behind the introduction of this law in Gujarat. Arguing that the local elections don’t arouse much interest in the public, the experts say that a law will help the people make use of their constitutional privilege. Interestingly, it would be incorrect to assume that we are alone in this regard. The 2014 midterm elections in the USA saw the lowest voter turnout in 72 years! Only 36.4% of the eligible voters came out to cast their vote, as compared to the 40.9% turnout in the 2010 midterm elections.

The advocates of compulsory voting argue that as a non-voter, you lose the right to criticize the government and its policies since you didn’t have any part to play in its formation at the first place. On the contrary, rather than remaining a neutral voter, your no-show at the elections effectively converts you into a negative vote. As LK Advani once remarked: “Voters, who without any legitimate justification, have not been exercising the valuable right of franchise the Indian Constitution has conferred on them have, unwittingly thus, been casting a negative vote against all the contesting candidates without intending to do so.”

Is the idea really feasible?

In all probabilities, the Kapoor committee would recommend a nominal fine for the law violators. But taking into account the huge demography of the country, collection of such fines would be a tedious task to say the least. The last thing you would want is to spend more in collecting fines than the amount of fine itself!

Human behaviour forces us to repel anything which is made ‘compulsory’ for us. In Brazil, for instance, where voting is compulsory, a Rhinoceros ‘Cacareco’ won the local elections in 1959 when the people decided to utilize their compulsory voting right to protest against rampant corruption.291914817_0425f7619c_o

Incentivising a positive rather than punishing a negative has always paid rich dividends. For example, during the recent Delhi assembly elections, a number of restaurants, gyms and salons in the capital announced discounts for the customers if they showed their ‘inked finger’. While the real impact of such campaigns in boosting the voting percentage still remains to be deciphered, such ideas surely give food for thought.

The recent years have seen a steady rise in the voter turnout in all elections in the country. This is directly proportional to the rising literacy rate in the country. None would argue against the fact that voter education plays a major role in enhancing the voter turnout. The Election Commission has been organizing several events to raise awareness among the public regarding the significance of their single vote. To push the initiative even further, in 2011, the Government earmarked 25th January as the National Voters’ Day. Many celebrities have also taken up the cause of voter education in the past few years, and their efforts have showed results. Whether the clause of compulsory voting further adds to the rising political conscience of the country or does it backfire on the Government authorities, remains to be seen.

A-MK-150x150The author is a Chicago-based political commentator. This op-ed is an exclusive article in his series Musings from Chicago. You can reach out to him at e-mail ID:pedia333@gmail.com and on Twitter @drMunishRaizada.

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BJP Offers Christians a Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Is Religious Pilgrimage A New Playground For The Political Parties?

This would not be the first time that India has bankrolled pilgrimages for the Christians. Before this, the government had subsidized the Haj pilgrimage for the Muslim community

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In a country like India, such miscalculated steps could backfire in form of communal rights and the results could be unprecedented. Wikimedia Commons
In a country like India, such miscalculated steps could backfire in form of communal rights and the results could be unprecedented. Wikimedia Commons
  • The political parties (BJP and Congress ) are promising a free trip to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage in the coming local elections of the eastern states of India
  • The Christian population in Meghalaya and Nagaland is almost 75 percent and 88 percent respectively
  • After the Supreme Court’s intervention, the government had drafted the policy to abolish the Haj subsidy in a phased manner by 2022

The Campaign promises during the elections times are quite bizarre nowadays, from “I’ll cut your taxes,” to “vote for me, and I’ll set you free.”

In the coming local elections in the Christian- majority state of Nagaland in India the agenda by the rival BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and Congress parties are unique: “Vote for us and get either a free or a heavily subsidized pilgrimage to Jerusalem.”

Yes, you read it right. The political parties are promising a free trip to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage. The offer has been put up by the Prime Minister Modi- led BJP for the upcoming elections. Even the local partners of the Congress party are treading up the same path.

Recently, the central government decided to withdraw subsidy given to hundreds and thousands of Muslims for the annual Haj pilgrimage. Wikimedia Commons
Recently, the central government decided to withdraw subsidy given to hundreds and thousands of Muslims for the annual Haj pilgrimage. Wikimedia Commons

The BJP has not made it clear yet if it is offering the scheme to all of India’s Christians, or only to Christians in the northeast, or only to Christians in Nagaland. The Christian population in Meghalaya and Nagaland is almost 75 percent and 88 percent respectively. Nagaland is one of smallest states of India, with the population of just under two million people.

Also Read: Muslim women can now travel for Haj without Mahram

As per the Tourism Ministry figures, around 58,000 Indian tourists came to Israel in 2017, a 47% increase from 2015.

The elections are scheduled for the February 27 in three northeastern states – Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura – later this month.

The AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi also tweeted on the double standard of the government and lashed out at the government for its discriminatory decision, ending Haj subsidy but allowing subsidies to continue for Hindu pilgrimages like the Mansarovar Yatra.

This would not be the first time that India has bankrolled pilgrimages for the Christians. Before this, the government had subsidized the Haj pilgrimage for the Muslim community. But recently, the central government decided to withdraw subsidy given to hundreds and thousands of Muslims for the annual Haj pilgrimage. The government cited the reason for the subsidy withdrawal as they wanted to utilise the funds saved from withdrawing the subsidy for the education of minorities, particularly girls. After the Supreme Court’s intervention, the government had drafted the policy to abolish the Haj subsidy in a phased manner by 2022.

Also Read: Government ends Haj subsidy as part of a new policy

The scheme is a clear cut example of hypocrisy and opportunism, especially considering the cancellation of Haj subsidies. It seems quite contrary, on the one hand, the government is cutting down the benefit scheme for one section of the society and on the other hand, some other community is been offered the same thing. Such moves bring out the double standards of the political parties just for the sake of vote bank. In a country like India, such miscalculated steps could backfire in form of communal rights and the results could be unprecedented.

In 2011, Nigeria also did something same as that of India. For many years, their government financed a trip to Mecca for Muslims, leading to some 42,000 Nigerians visiting the country. But with the change in the government, subsidies have been cut considerably and now a 12-day pilgrimage costs around 2000 dollars. The change in stance has resulted in 78% decrease from 2011.