The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Vote or go to prison

Year after year, it’s the same old saga. The disenchantment of voters with their ‘so-called rulers’ has been so complete at times that it has raised questions about the validity of elections. M.S. Gill, the former chief election commissioner who’s now a member of the Rajya Sabha, points out, “The consistently low voter turnouts (less than 50 per cent) witnessed in nearly all the phases of the ongoing UP polls means that the ultimate results wouldn’t be a reflection of the true mandate of the people.”

In an effort to tackle this problem, MP Jai Parkash Aggarwal, has introduced an interesting private Bill in the Rajya Sabha. Known as the Compulsory Voting Bill, 2006, it claims that only 35 per cent to 45 per cent voters of the world’s largest democracy care to exercise their electoral right. So, with an eye on the remarkably dipping voter percentage, the Bill proposes to make it “compulsory for every eligible voter” to vote. Says the young Congress MP from Dausa, Sachin Pilot, “Voting is compulsory in some countries such as Peru and Australia. So why not here' This is a good intent Bill since the main problem staring us in the eye is ‘voter disenchantment’ which is really high in the urban areas.” Agrees BJP MP from Amritsar, Navjot Singh Sidhu, “The bourgeoisie prefer to relax in their AC cubicles than come out and vote. So this Bill will be that gentle prod which will help decide the fate of the country.”

The Bill says that “every citizen who is eligible to cast his vote in any election, shall exercise his right to vote compulsorily when called for by the Election Commission”. It further says that the Election Commission shall ensure that there are adequate numbers of polling booths at convenient places — in each Lok Sabha/Vidhan Sabha constituency — at the time of election. Secondly, these booths should be established in such a way that the number of the electorate in each of these remains equal and the distance between two booths is not more than half a kilometre. Thirdly, measures should be made to ensure the safety and security of voters. Also, appropriate arrangements should be made for “enabling persons” deputed for polling duty to cast their votes.

These apart, the Bill demands that separate arrangements should be made for senior citizens, physically incapacitated persons and pregnant women.

While Prasun Mukherjee, commissioner of police, West Bengal, refused to comment on the Parliamentary Bill, it goes without saying that if implemented, the responsibility for carrying out these provisions would be tough, to say the least.

Well, if you happen to be one of those who care little about your electoral rights, you may be in for trouble. In keeping with the Bill, not only will you have to cough up Rs 500 for failing to vote but you may also end up behind bars for two days. There’s more to it. It may even cost you your ration card, and you may also be debarred from contesting any election for 10 years.

That’s not all. The other consequences may include being debarred from allotment of any plots or houses in a central or state government-owned organisation, apart from not being granted any loans.

Expectedly, the Bill has its critics in political circles. West Bengal’s firebrand leader and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee says, “Voting is a fundamental right and hence can’t be infringed upon. Also, people have lost confidence in democracy and that needs to be restored urgently to rectify the issue of lower voter turnouts.”

And even though she claims ignorance of the provisions of this Bill owing to her ongoing struggle in Bengal, she emphatically says that employing a carrot-and-stick policy will not solve the problem. She points out that in the last West Bengal polls, voter turnout was 100 per cent — which shows that people can be won over with a little persuasion and a lot of love. So force has no place in a democratic set-up, Mamata says. Agrees P.N. Lekhi, senior advocate, Supreme Court, “The threat of compulsion will not serve any purpose. Of course, there are other democracies such as Germany that have introduced such measures, but they follow a modified version of this concept. There, direct voting is meant for 50 per cent of the population and political parties nominate the rest of the voters, who comprise another 50 per cent. In this manner, the imbalance is repaired. In the absence of such a provision in India, this would end up as a half-measure.”

In fact, Gurudas Dasgupta of the CPI has a different take on this. “To compel people to cast their votes or use coercion is bad. This Bill will collapse and will never get enacted.” Here he makes a pertinent point. If the electorate is so disillusioned, it can prefer “not to vote” and can register its protest in this manner.

In fact, under Rule 49- of the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, if an elector decides not to record his vote or wants to record a negative vote (in case one doesn’t find a candidate worthy), one can just go ahead and do so. This is certainly a better way of showing dissent than not turning up at all and hence giving your opposition a chance to win (if their supporters turn up in sufficient numbers).

The Bill doesn’t stop at that. It has more aces up its sleeve. If the defaulter is an employee of the central or state government or any public sector undertaking owned by the central or state government, he shall be punished with forfeiture of ten days’ salary and believe it or not, a substantial delay in promotion. Says Pilot, “India is a poor country and imposing financial hardship is unwarranted.”

Senior citizen Salil Chatterjee adds, “This is ridiculous. A government, along with a supposedly efficient EC, hasn’t been able to provide so many people who have moved to the city in the last few years with a voter’s ID card. Compared to that, these provisions almost seem beyond the physical ability of the EC, the police and the state government.” Gill agrees, “When we can’t provide compulsory education, food or housing, how dare we talk of compulsory voting' This Bill is neither workable nor desirable.”

Gill continues, “There are a hundred reasons for a low voter turnout: blazing temperatures, the farming season and people in general rejecting the electoral system. Technically, the aam aadmi always votes; it’s only the urban dweller who doesn’t.”

The last word comes from Mamata Banerjee. Says she, “We must love people and bring them back to the fold. Also, the EC needs to be an autonomous body, free of the machinations of the government. I have been harping on this for long.” Sums up Gill, “Hukumbazi won’t take us anywhere, it is a question of the political parties waking up to the reality and doing something about it.”

Is anybody listening'

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