As political reforms go, Modi’s must-vote bill is an important step
By Swapan Dasgupta
There was a time when the Indian version of the Honours List was the strict prerogative of the State. In the market economy age, it isn’t necessary for India’s achievers to lobby ministers and officials to get their names on the Republic Day list: there are alternatives.
The ‘season’ in Delhi and Mumbai witnesses a surfeit of functions organized by media houses, ‘academic’ institutes and industry-sponsored foundations aimed at honouring those who have apparently made a difference to the lives of others. There are awards for sports, media, literature, entertainment, governance, philanthropy and business. And, of course, there are the invariable awards for the “Indian of the Year”— politicians are traditionally favoured — and for “Lifetime achievement”. The wicked people say that many awards are rigged, and aimed at securing collateral benefits for the sponsors. But, like the ‘news for sale’ scandal that has gripped the media, that is another story altogether.
A striking feature of the awards is their sheer predictability. Those who observe these things keenly can more or less predict those who are favoured and those who are out of the radar. Taking a cue from the Nobel committee, it is almost pre-ordained that every second award will be offered to Rahul Gandhi — not necessarily for what he has achieved but because, like President Barack Obama, he has potential. For those awarding bodies that have the clout to arrange an acceptance speech (or at least a message), the prime minister will be honoured — again, not necessarily for what he has achieved, but for the position he holds. Among chief ministers, Delhi’s Sheila Dikshit is a permanent favourite for purely logistical reasons.
Equally significant are those who invariably get left out. Orissa’s Naveen Patnaik has about as many achievements as the Delhi chief minister: winning three consecutive elections. Yet, it is rare to see him being honoured. There are few collateral advantages to honouring Patnaik.
Another notable who has been bypassed for the awards is the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. For those who measure achievement through the prism of economic success, Modi stands out. He has presided over the highest growth rate of any state in the past years; he has made efficiency a yardstick of governance; he has curbed corruption dramatically; he has arrested the decline of agricultural productivity in his state; he has put environment on the agenda of development; and he has revelled in innovative governance. By any measure, Modi should have been swimming in awards showered on him.
It is not that his achievements are unknown. Two years ago, a media house conducted a viewers’/readers’ poll for its Indian of the Year. Modi came out tops. Yet, vox populi was discounted in favour of a hand-picked jury, which, predictably, settled for a more socially acceptable candidate. When it comes to Modi, what matters is the burden of the singer and not the song.
Last month, the Modi government undertook an audacious piece of legislation aimed at making the political process more wholesome and more accountable and, by implication, less venal. The Gujarat assembly passed a bill making voting compulsory for all elections to local bodies. In short, universal adult franchise was extended to universal adult participation — a measure adopted by 32 countries and actively enforced in 19. Left to himself, Modi would probably have made voting in assembly and Lok Sabha elections obligatory. But since these come under the purview of the Centre, such a move must await another day.
An interesting feature of the Gujarat legislation is that there is a provision for voters to reject all the candidates on offer — a “none of these” option. Presumably, if the majority of voters rejects the list of aspirants, a re-election will become mandatory. In other words, the act of either neutrality or protest has been built into a system of compulsory participation.
As political reforms go, the Gujarat legislation is one of the most important initiatives in recent times. Yet, it is curious that it has been greeted with an embarrassed but deafening silence, not least from those who are loudest in their indignation over the present debasement of electoral politics. In true babu fashion, the Election Commission has underlined the administrative difficulties of ensuring total participation, and some liberals have expressed dismay at the attempt to codify the obligations of citizenship. Yet others have pointed to the absurdities involved in dragging the sick, infirm and transient voters into the polling booth. In time, there may even be theological objections to a system of participation that isn’t divinely ordained. Even within Modi’s own party, the Gujarat legislation has not secured unequivocal endorsement. The temptation to see the measure as Modi’s personal, overbearing initiative has clouded dispassionate assessment.
The dramatic consequences of compulsory voting need to be spelt out. For a start, since a large percentage of electioneering costs governs the turnout of voters, it is certain to reduce the importance of money power quite dramatically. There will be an automatic shift in focus from ensuring voter turnout to publicizing what a party or candidate stands for. There will be a shift in politics from organization to issues. By implication, the role of the apparatchiks in the political system will be devalued.
Secondly, a major distortion in our election system results from bloc-voting by one section and the relative non-participation by a larger, unorganized and amorphous group of citizens. An organized group can punch above its weight and distort the verdict by capitalizing on the passivity of others. Compulsory voting puts all citizens, regardless of class, gender, caste and religion, on an equal footing. A net consequence could be the lowering of sectarian tensions as an instrument of voter mobilization.
Finally, a government elected with the endorsement of a majority, as opposed to a majority of the minority that turns up to vote, will enjoy extra legitimacy. This, in turn, will be a weapon of decisive governance.
That there are logistical hurdles in the path of an effective implementation of the compulsory voting scheme is undeniable. First, the preparation of electoral rolls must become more rigorous, and there must be easy procedures for citizens to enlist as voters. Secondly, the system of postal voting must be enlarged to cover a larger group of citizens than just government servants and members of the armed forces. If voting is deemed compulsory, it must become more convenient. It may even become necessary to extend the hours of physical voting. Thirdly, there is a difference between making voting obligatory and making it coercive. Since the idea is to increase voter turnout from the all-India average of 55 per cent to around 90 per cent (a 100 per cent turnout is an impossibility), there should be no harassment of those who are either unable to vote or choose to be libertarians. A system of incentives rather than punishment may be more appropriate — a subject that needs more deliberation.
Democracy is one of India’s most cherished attributes. The irony is that this great pillar of strength and national resolve has been systematically undermined by operational shortcomings of the electoral system. With growing prosperity, there is a fear that India could go the way of many Western democracies and become indifferent to the political process. Low turnouts in elections lead to the hijacking of democracy by a determined minority. It contributes to the emotional secession of the contended from citizenship and accords a premium on discontent. Measures to rectify the distortions warrant serious consideration regardless of our personal view of the man who made it happen in Gujarat.