Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Compelling people to vote will empower big money, not citizens

211209The Times of India
16 November 2014

Compelling people to vote will empower big money, not citizens

Siddharth Varadarajan

Make no mistake about it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a believer in compulsory voting and the new Gujarat law that has just received the assent of the state’s governor could well become the template for a gradual move towards mandatory voting even in national elections.

The Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Act compels voters to participate in elections for local bodies on pain of (as yet unspecified) punishment. The law was first mooted and passed by the state assembly when Modi was chief minister but was repeatedly returned by the then Congress appointed governor on the grounds that it was undemocratic to compel voters in this manner.

Modi, of course, argues that compulsory voting will produce a more representative outcome than one in which only a fraction of voters exercise their mandate. Indeed, the Gujarat law notes in its objects and purposes that “… due to low turnout of voters…the true spirit of the will of the people is not reflected in the electoral mandate.” Modi has also said that compulsory voting in national elections would reduce the role of money power and black money. What he meant, perhaps, was that parties wouldn’t have to spend money mobilizing voters on polling day.

According to The Economist, as many as 38 countries or regions in the world have compulsory voting laws or have flirted with the concept in the past. Today, countries with a strictly enforced compulsory voting system include such respectable and vibrant democracies as Australia and Brazil. Not surprisingly, voter turnout handily exceeds 90%; in Australia, however, it is not mandatory to register oneself to vote and there is evidence that a significant chunk of younger citizens have not bothered to engage with the electoral system.

In my view, the fascination Modi and the BJP have for compulsory voting at the national level is linked to their preference for a personality centric ‘presidential’ type of electoral system in which Lok Sabha and vidhan sabha elections are held simultaneously across the country. They know the party has an edge in such a system; and they are confident adding compulsory voting to the equation will give them an even more decisive edge, especially when it comes to mopping up the support of “neutral” voters who form around 20-25% of the electorate and who, for a variety of reasons, normally abstain.

In this evolving ‘presidential’ system, the use of Big Money (and media) power becomes even more decisive than it is today. In the 2014 election, the BJP and Congress spent vast sums of money on advertising, with the former outstripping the latter. Back-of-the-envelope calculations indicate the ‘Modi for PM’ drive cost as much as the billion dollars the ‘Obama for President’ campaign spent in 2012. The real sums, and where they came from, will, of course, never be known.

What is irrefutable, however, is that centralized expenditure on party propaganda — on which there are no legal limits — vastly outstrips what is spent at the constituency level on the promotion of individual candidates. Modi is right that black money gets spent at that level because many candidates spend more than the Rs 70 lakh upper limit allowed to them. Compulsory voting may reduce the money parties and candidates spend on the physical mobilization of voters but not on constituency-level inducement or national-level propaganda.

Giving voters the option of choosing ‘none of the above’, or NOTA, will not soften the blow of compulsion. Even if the NOTA slot polls the highest number of votes, it has no effect on the outcome of the election. If anything, the reform that is needed is a single transferable vote or run-off system that guarantees the winning candidate secures at least half the popular vote in a constituency.

Above all, citizens must have the right to stay away from an election altogether if they feel the process will not produce an outcome that truly empowers them.

There are many problems with Indian democracy and the Indian electoral system that need fixing but compulsory voting is hardly the answer to these. Democracy will be strengthened by more people voting but only if the higher turnout is part of an organic process of empowerment in which parties do not impose candidates from above and people manage to exercise effective control over their elected representatives. And urgent reform is needed to place strict limits on what parties can spend nationally on their election campaign and propaganda. Compulsory voting will only end up increasing the importance of money power.

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This entry was posted on November 16, 2014 by in Bad Ideas, Indian Politics.

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