New Delhi, Jan. 22: A government panel has floated the idea of making voting compulsory in civic and panchayat elections, with a fine of Rs 25 for anyone who chooses not to vote despite the absence of disabling circumstances.
The panchayati raj ministry task force has argued that higher polling is likely to reduce the influence of money power on election results.
A low turnout suggests that only committed voters and those who have accepted money to vote came to the polling stations, the committee argued. Increased turnouts can be assured by making voting compulsory, it added.
However, citizens with genuine reasons for being unable to vote would be exempted. Also, the voters can choose the none of the candidates option.
The ministry has called a meeting of state representatives and state election commissioners in February to discuss if the recommendation can be implemented.
Compulsory voting is a controversial subject. The Gujarat Assembly passed a bill in December 2009 making voting mandatory in local body elections but the governor has been withholding assent on the ground that it violates the freedom of expression.
The panchayati raj panel has pointed a finger at the middle and upper classes, saying many of their members consider voting a waste of time. Ministry officials, however, failed to explain how a Rs 25 fine would deter these better-off citizens, or how such a fine could be collected from tens of thousands.
Perhaps with these legal and practical difficulties in mind, the committee has offered another suggestion to increase polling: online voting. It believes this option could encourage the middle classes to vote.
Several constitutional experts and social activists have criticised the idea. Bar Council of India chairperson Ashok Parija said compulsory voting is not in consonance with the Constitution.
Subhash C. Kashyap, former Lok Sabha secretary-general, said: Instead of being made compulsory, voting should be made a fundamental citizenship duty (its already a fundamental right) under Article 51A of the Constitution.
He explained that forcing a person to vote is undemocratic but if voting is made a fundamental duty, there will be no provision for punishments. Rather, there can be incentives and disincentives. For example, while issuing passports, ration cards or driving licences, the government may ask applicants to show certificates of voting.
The task force, headed by the ministrys additional secretary, Hrusikesh Panda, cited how voting was compulsory in 12 countries, such as Argentina and Australia, which usually recorded 97 to 98 per cent polling.
It said compulsory voting might encourage voters to research the candidates political position more thoroughly, since they would be voting anyway. Besides, it added, candidates will have to appeal to a larger section of the electorate.
But activist Nikhil Dey said: Electoral reforms will not come by making voting compulsory; there has to be a political solution. Every citizen will have to realise that the candidate they are electing will really represent them. The elected representatives have to demonstrate a level of political maturity so that people develop trust in them.
T. Haque, director of the Council of Social Development, an NGO working on panchayati raj issues, too said that citizens must not be compelled to vote.
If a voter has no interest in politics or no knowledge of the candidates, why should he be asked to vote? he said.