Democracy is sophisticated in concept and difficult in practice. India is amazing in that it persists in holding on to democracy’s coattails in spite of its variegated masses and their widely differing levels of education. People do understand that the driving principle behind democracy is political choice. Even when regions occasionally experience coercion from particular leaders or parties, there is ultimately a backlash as people break free, however long that may take. Voting is an expression of people’s choice; whether people will exercise the right to vote is a matter of choice too. The Supreme Court’s recent order that a ‘none of the above’ or NOTA button be added to electronic voting machines emphasizes this aspect of choice, in case a voter wishes to record his rejection of all candidates in his area. Greeting this as an enhancement of democracy, Narendra Modi and, after him, L.K. Advani, have declared that voting should be mandatory, with penalties for voters who cannot give a good reason for not turning up at the booth. Mr Modi has been trying to pass this law in Gujarat, too. It appears that neither Mr Modi nor Mr Advani is particularly logical. Democracy cannot be improved by coercion, only by enhancing choice. Perhaps they do not understand the concept of democracy very well; it is a sophisticated idea. Besides, voters are not children, as they have shown their leaders repeatedly. They cannot be frightened into voting if they do not wish to do so. How they treat their right — and responsibility — to vote is their choice.
Making voting mandatory smacks of monitoring. No one who lives in India and is touched by its politics will mistake the subtle edge of menace in the suggestion. When ruling parties begin to ‘monitor’ voter presence at booths — maybe arrange for transport themselves — voting is far less likely to be free and fair. Certainly not free, and fair possibly only to the ‘monitoring’ parties. Can it be that Mr Modi and Mr Advani are totally innocent of the practical implications of mandatory voting? Of course, uncomprehending though they may be, their good intentions to enhance democracy cannot be in doubt. The best way to do so would be to destroy the grounds of voters’ disinterest and disgust, that is, to provide clean, efficient, fair governance so that voters wish to engage with the development of their nation.