Politics of Compulsory Voting

Published in the Daily O

Despite widespread criticism, the Gujarat Government is set to notify the law on compulsory voting in time for the upcoming local body elections in October. The Bill piloted by then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi was passed twice by the Gujarat assembly but was blocked by then Governor Kamla Beniwal. However the new Gujarat Governor, OP Kohli cleared the Bill making it a law. The Act makes it incumbent for all registered voters to vote or be liable for yet undefined punishment so that “people take it [Act] seriously”.

There has been stiff opposition to the Act on both principle and the logistics of its implementation.  Detractors of compulsory voting have argued that voting or not voting 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. The BJP state unit on the other hand has sought justification in the “duty of the voter to vote at election” to improve political participation. At one level, it may seem ironic that a party that has cleared Bills in the state assembly after suspending all Opposition MLAs should bring a law on compulsory voting; however, this Act is another well-planned measure to further majoritarianism. Given that the law was initiated by the Prime Minister who recently told a newspaper that “fundamentally there’s no difference” between running a state and the nation, the law has national implications. A review of the last General Election shows the dangers of this law.

BJP swept the 2014 General Elections with 282 MPs to win the first Parliamentary majority in 30 years; however the details present a more sectarian picture. In a country with 14 percent Muslims, not one of BJP’s 282 MPs is a Muslim. 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. 56 percent of the upper-caste Hindus voted for BJP+, which represents a 30 percentage point increase from the 2009 elections. On the other hand, only 8 percent of the Muslims voted for BJP up from 4 percent from the last election. 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 support for the winning alliance was more broad-based with an average of 60 percent of seats from the Hindi speaking states and 40 percent from the non-Hindi speaking states.

While it is true that the projection of Modi played a significant role in the elections, the RSS was instrumental in ensuring high voter turnout among the Hindus. There is much anecdotal evidence that RSS pracharaks systematically fanned out in the Hindi heartland canvassing Hindu households exhorting them to turnout in high numbers and vote for a strong leader to take on national issues (Pakistan and minority appeasement are two enduring leitmotifs). The result is evident. 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. Of these, 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.

However dependence on the Sangh for electoral victory imposes considerable constraints on Modi. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi was credited with keeping the Sangh parivar on a tight leash to concentrate on his development agenda (or at least the marketing of it). However as Prime Minister, the RSS looms large over Modi Sarkar so much so that a RSS-government coordination committee was set up to institutionalize Sangh’s involvement in governance. The Sangh has also played spoilsport in two key Modi initiatives with the Sangh making common cause with the Opposition on land acquisition amendments and labour reform. Reducing dependency on the RSS electoral machine is thus imperative for Modi. Compulsory voting is a legislative alternative to the organizational effort required to increase Hindu voter turnout. This has to be seen in the backdrop of concerted efforts by the BJP to consolidate all castes into the Hindu fold while simultaneously polarizing communities along religious lines. In Gujarat with a mere 9 percent Muslim population, the law 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 (14 percent Muslim). This will also have implications on minority representation: under Modi in Gujarat, not a single Muslim was given a ticket in the last assembly election. Uttar Pradesh did not elect a single Muslim MP out of the 80 it sends to the Parliament despite the community being an essential constituency of all political parties except the BJP in the state.

Electoral implications aside, the law mandating compulsory voting turns the concept of state accountability on its head. An official who helped draft the Gujarat bill said, “there will be a penalty. When a law is passed, people should take it seriously” and 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. Furthermore, given the sheer logistics, the application of the law is likely to be arbitrary and liable for misuse and harassment. Some proponents of compulsory voting have argued that increased voter turnout will increase legitimacy of the government; however a democratic government earns legitimacy through its own accountability not punishment for the citizenry.

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