You are on page 1of 2

COMMENTARY

ramification of this bill on local elec-


Bill for Compulsory Voting tions has deluded the topic. The context
of this bill is the local elections and
hence, it is important to highlight how
Bhanu Joshi the bill not only targets the wrong
symptom, but goes on to give the wrong

W
This article argues that the hen Gujarat prepared to launch medicine. The argument for compulsory
Gujarat government’s attempt to India’s first online voting voting can broadly be categorised into
system for the Gandhinagar two narratives. First is the narrative
legislate compulsory voting in
Municipal Corporation elections in 2010, that the act of voting is construed as a
local body elections targets the a government official had told me in a proof of democratic participation and
wrong symptom and gives the jaded voice, “Gujarat will become the non-voting equals an amorphous non-
wrong medicine. The dichotomy first state in India to implement this. We interest in democratic values and du-
are getting inquiries from other states ties. Second is the oft-raised question
of not willing to constitute local
about how to replicate the system”. The around the “representativeness of the
governments on one hand, and disinterest in his voice was palpable, elected representative”. Simply put, if
then making voting compulsory given that he had received many such an elected leader does not get over 50%
to enhance participation on the visitors like me. After some briefing by of the votes in their constituency, their
the technical staff, amidst the beeps of representativeness is in question. By
other, is simply absurd and risks
servers, the same official said, “The mid- making voting a compulsory act, the
setting a dangerous precedence. dle class doesn’t vote; this is for them.” questions of legitimacy of the elected
As the cliched indelible ink went digital, representative will never pop up.
the Gujarat government and the State An analysis of electoral data in local
Election Commission (SEC) were called elections shows that rural local bodies
upon by the courts, and after a legal have had higher turnouts than their urban
battle, the e-voting system was scaled up counterparts in almost all states of India.
for the entire state. Data from 2009-13 of city corporation
elections in major cities reveal that the
Compulsory Voting turnout has been low across states (Fig-
The Gujarat government will soon be, ure 1, p 23). Taking six megacities as a
again, in the courts to defend the Gujarat sample, we find that the turnouts in the
Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) city corporations average around 50%,
Bill, 2009 which makes voting for the while the average turnout for national
rural local bodies like gram panchayats, elections (1952-2014) has been 60%. It
zilla parishads, etc, and urban local is, thus, a fact that turnouts in the urban
bodies such as the municipal corpora- local body elections are lower than the
tions, nagar panchayats, etc, compulso- elections to national, state and rural
ry for its citizens. The Gujarat Assembly local bodies. The causality of this lower
passed the bill in 2009, but it was sent turnout, however, needs elaboration.
back by the then Governor Kamla Beni- One of the reasons for this low turnout
wal observing that “forcing voters to is the inconsistencies and high error
vote is against the principles of individu- rates in the electoral rolls of the SEC,
al liberty”. This bill was adopted again which fail to capture the urban elector-
in 2011 but could only receive the gover- ates, which is more diverse, mobile,
nor’s assent with a change of guard in fragmented and spatially segregated.
the Raj Bhawan. This results in mass omissions and com-
Essentially, what should have been a missions of names in the electoral rolls.
potential issue for discussion around This is further exacerbated when a
questions of participation and demo- financially-starved and functionally-poor
cratic trends in the local elections, has SEC is tasked to prepare and update the
been stretched to debate compulsory electoral rolls in the same manner as the
voting in national and state elections. Election Commission of India. The SEC
Notwithstanding the comments made has not been able to develop a mecha-
Bhanu Joshi (bhanu@cprindia.org) is a by Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) nism of sharing the electoral rolls for
researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, Brahma “that such a provision may not conducting local elections. A well-docu-
New Delhi.
be correct”, a rational debate on the mented case came from Bengaluru city
22 december 27, 2014 vol xlIX no 52 EPW Economic & Political Weekly
COMMENTARY
Figure 1: Turnout in the Last Election to the Municipal Corporations of Major Cities (%) turnout should not come to us as
70 a surprise.
62 59
60 58
53
50 Deny Democracy, Force Voting
50 45 45
42
44
41 42 44 44 The same Gandhinagar, which became
40 India’s first municipality to have an
Turnouts

30
e-voting system, was refused a munici-
pality status by the Gujarat government
20
by denying elections and elected local
10 government. The Saher Jagrut Nagrik
Parishad filed a petition against the state
0
in the Gujarat High Court, resulting in or-
Hyderabad

Ahmedabad
Bengaluru

Mumbai

Chennai

Delhi

Kolkata

Rajkot

Surat

Vadodara

Bhavnagar

Jamnagar

Gandhinagar
ders for municipalisation and immediate
conduct of elections. In this particular
Source: Respective State Election Commissions.
case, the advocate general on behalf of the
state government argued that there was
corporation elections in 2010, where the The states then delegate other impor- no compulsion on the state government
electoral rolls were alleged to have been tant municipal functions like city plan- to constitute a corporation and that con-
inflated with 7 million official voters as ning including town planning and land stituting a municipality would unneces-
against an expected 5.6 million voters regulation to parastatal organisations sarily subject its people of local taxes,
according to the 2001 Census. It was like urban development authorities whereas the state government is already
argued that, if the latter figure was to be which result into further dilution of the providing for the civic services.
believed, the actual voter turnout in local governance agenda. Most local The presiding judge remarked, “Recog-
Bengaluru could be as high as 55% and governments do not have the financial nition of the popular will of the people
not the reported 40%. Similar senti- capacity to undertake independent through electoral process promotes consti-
ments were also expressed by various work without formal approvals of their tutionalism, which ensures diffusion of
civil society groups and politicians after state governments, reducing them to a powers, necessitates different independent
the Mumbai city corporation elections mere public works department-like centres of decision-making”. The dichoto-
of 2012. body. Since our mayors are not directly my of not willing to constitute local gov-
The second and more intuitive argu- elected nor are they provided minimum ernments on the one hand, and then mak-
ment for low turnouts is usually attrib- tenure, the result is a non-persuasive ing compulsory voting to enhance partici-
uted to “voter apathy” or “middle class institution which the urbanite cannot pation on the other, is simply absurd. It
discontentment” – phrases that exemplify look up to. The result of this unaccount- risks setting dangerous precedence and
a secession of the urban electorate from able, subserviced, half-hearted local will result in the debate around local gov-
the democratic processes. We need more governance being manifested in lower ernments in urban India being ignored.
understanding around why the urban
voter is disincentivised or sees no value
in voting for local elections while, com-
paratively, turns up in much larger num-
EPW E-books
bers for the state and national elections. Select EPW books are now available as e-books in Kindle and iBook (Apple) formats.
A partial answer to this question is im-
The titles are
bued in the way our urban local govern-
ments have been functioning, resulting 1. Village Society (ED. SURINDER JODHKA)
in non-recognition of the local govern- (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CS62AAW ;
ments as an institution for policy inter- https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/village-society/id640486715?mt=11)
vention or an individual grievance re-
dressal in the electorates’ mind.
2. Environment, Technology and Development (ED. ROHAN D’SOUZA)
Principally, the local governments (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CS624E4 ;
have not been able to carve out a poli- https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/environment-technology-development/
tical agenda distinct from the national id641419331?mt=11)
and state agendas. Civic issues like 3. Windows of Opportunity: Memoirs of an Economic Adviser (BY K S KRISHNASWAMY)
garbage, road maintenance, street lights,
(http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CS622GY ;
water supply, public health and slum
improvement are never associated with
https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/windows-of-opportunity/id640490173?mt=11)
local bodies because they have been Please visit the respective sites for prices of the e-books. More titles will be added gradually.
espoused by the state governments.
Economic & Political Weekly EPW december 27, 2014 vol xlIX no 52 23