The Prime Minister in his earlier avatar as Chief Minister of Gujarat piloted a compulsory voting Bill, which mandated that all voters had an “obligation to vote” in local body polls. Failure to vote would make the voter a “defaulter” and liable for “punishment” by the Government. The Bill was passed by the assembly in 2011 but was blocked by then Governor, Kamla Beniwal. However, the new Governor, OP Kohli has cleared the Bill making it a law.
Many detractors of compulsory voting have argued that voting or not voting itself is a choice, and coercing citizens to vote violates constitutionally guaranteed rights such as individual liberty and Freedom of Speech. Others, like the Election Commissioner, HS Brahma have questioned the implementation of law given that the number of non-voters is too large for consistent and uniform application of punishment.
Both these concerns are correct. However in the current political scenario, compulsory voting also raises the very real concern of majoritarianism. Compulsory voting is a legislative alternative to the organizational effort required to increase Hindu voter turnout used very successfully by the BJP in the recent Parliamentary and assembly elections. In Gujarat with a mere 9 percent Muslim population, it is a sure way to marginalize minorities from electoral politics. Similar logic holds at the national level where minorities constitute only 18 percent of the total population (13 percent Muslim).
The ruling Party, BJP which swept into power in the recent General Elections is a Hindu nationalist Party. It has absolute majority in the Parliament – 282 MPs, none Muslim in a country with 13 percent Muslims. After BJP’s unprecedented victory, Ashok Singhal, senior VHP leader said that BJP’s victory was a “blow to Muslim politics” and the Lok Sabha polls had shown that elections can be won without Muslim support.
As indeed it was. The BJP’s absolute majority came on the back of upper-caste Hindu consolidation especially in the Hindi heartland. Some numbers illustrate the point: 56 percent of the upper-caste Hindus voted for BJP+ , which is a 30 percentage point increase from the 2009 elections. 85 percent of the BJP’s seats came from the 11 Hindi speaking states, which account for only 55 percent of the Lok Sabha seats. This completely bucks the trend of the last 11 general elections in 40 years, where the winning alliance on average won 60 percent of its seats from the Hindi speaking states and 40 percent from the non-Hindi speaking states.
While it is undoubted that the projection of Modi played a significant role in these elections, equally the RSS provided huge organizational support to the BJP. The RSS was instrumental in ensuring high voter turnout in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In the 189 constituencies where BJP and Congress were the top two vote getters, the average increase in voter turnout (from 2009) was 11.4 percent. The BJP won 166 out of the 189 seats. Compare that with the 115 constituencies where BJP did not contest; the average increase in voter turnout was a mere 4.3 percent.
The BJP is not innocent of electoral calculations based on demographics. One of the recurring themes of its communal politics has been the high fertility rate of Muslims, which in the dire predictions of its hate mongers will eventually swamp the country’s Hindus. The Love Jihad campaign derives its edge not just from the “honor” of Indian women, but also “hum paanch, humaare pachhees” rhetoric. Likewise BJP’s politics of illegal immigration is not innocent of its electoral implications. Therefore it is pertinent to ask if BJP would support a similar law in a state where Hindus are a minority, say in Jammu and Kashmir. It is no secret that BJP’s electoral calculations in Jammu and Kashmir elections are at least partly hinged on hopes of a low turnout. The return of Kashmiri Pandits to Kashmir is a real and justifiable concern, but again fraught with electoral calculations.
Electoral implications aside, this law mandating compulsory voting turns the concept of state accountability on its head. An official who helped draft the Gujarat bill said that the Government was “mulling punitive action like withdrawing BPL cards and discontinuing Government subsidy on kerosene and cooking gas” against “defaulters”. The very notion that the Government can withhold its developmental obligations to the citizen as punitive action is rife with authoritarianism. Governments are accountable to citizens and not the other way around. Citizens indeed have civic responsibility but to the citizenry at large, and not to the State. The Prime Minister like a true pracharak has shown great penchant for admonishments and punishments. However a democratic government earns legitimacy through its own accountability not punishment for the citizenry.
Update (Feb 20): Indian Express reports “For the first time, the Gujarat Election Commission is offering the option of online voting, starting in October during polls for all six municipal corporations: Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar” . Dalits and minorities already most likely to turn out to vote – upper caste and class Hindu least likely. The intention behind this is obvious. Also read somewhere recently that Modi needs to find an alternative to the RSS election machinery in order to get on with his “reforms” agenda (which is being opposed by sections of the Sangh Parivar). The article suggested a cadre based approach but this is a far cleaner and autocratic option.