The Tribune
Jagdeep S. Chhokar

The Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Act, 2009, passed recently by the state Assembly making it “compulsory” to vote in elections to municipal corporations has justifiably invited a lot of comment.

On the face of it, making voting compulsory sounds like a good idea as it requires citizens to perform what is arguably their most important duty. That is possibly why it has been getting approval ratings of 80-90 per cent in various TV polls. However, as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details”. And the details in the case of this Act are delightfully vague. For example, the Act says, “It shall be the duty of a qualified voter of the municipal corporation/municipality/ panchayats to vote at the election of the municipal corporation/municipality/ panchayats; however he will be free to cast his vote in favour of none of the candidates contesting elections as indicated in Sub-Section (2).” One, therefore, expects Sub-Section (2) to throw light on how one casts one’s vote “in favour of none of the candidates”. Let’s see what Sub-Section (2) says.

It “indicates” that “The qualified voter shall cast his vote in favour of none of the candidates contesting election, in the manner as may be prescribed by rules, in case where he does not want to cast his vote in favour of any candidate.” This raises the question, where will the “rules” come from? The “Memorandum regarding delegated legislation,” which is a part the Act, clarifies as follows: “Sub-Section (2) of the new section 16A/15B/34B proposed to be inserted in the Bombay Provincial Municipal Corporations Act, 1949/Gujarat Municipalities Act, 1963/Gujarat Panchayats Act, 1993, by this clause empowers the state government to prescribe by rules, the manner in which the qualified voter shall require to cast his vote in favour of none of the candidates contesting election.”

This is where the “details” become important. The “manner in which the qualified voter shall require to cast his vote in favour of none of the candidates contesting election” will be decided by the state government. There is a well-known method for casting votes in favour of none of the candidates: that of having a button saying, “none of the above” on the EVM. This is well-known because it was recommended by the Election Commission of India to the Government of India in 2001. It was repeated in a letter (No. 3/ER/2004) written to the Prime Minister on July 05, 2004, by the then Chief Election Commissioner. And a petition filed by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties seeking this provision is pending in the Supreme Court.

The mere provision of a “none of the above” (NOTA) button is, of course, not enough. The votes polled by NOTA should also be counted, and if NOTA gets more votes than any of the contesting candidates, none of the contesting candidates should be declared as elected. A fresh election should be held in which none of the candidates who contested the earlier election should be allowed to contest.

It has been said that the above procedure is very cumbersome and that a poor country such as India cannot afford to have repeated elections. But should someone be declared elected if the largest number of qualified voters actually voting do not want anyone of the contesting candidates to be elected? With the cumbersomeness of the voting process having been significantly reduced by the use of EVMs, is any price too heavy for an effective democracy?

Why has the Gujarat State Assembly chosen not to specify this method and leave it to the state government is not really clear.

The “Statement of objects and reasons” of the Act says that “It is absolutely inevitable for strengthening the democratic fabric of the country which is the basic feature of the Constitution of India that each and every citizen discharges his obligation to the nation by exercising his pious right to vote at elections. It is observed that due to low turnover of voters to discharge their duty by exercising their right to vote, the true spirit of the will of the people is not reflected in the electoral mandate.” The “object” of the Act, therefore, is stated to be “to achieve the goal of reflection of the true democratic will in the elections of the local self-governments… to make legislative provisions to make the duty to exercise the right to vote in the elections to local self-governments a statutory obligation.”

The semantic jugglery of converting a right into an obligation apart, is it not worth thinking about why does “each and every citizen” not exercise his “pious” right to vote at elections? And is democracy, a basic feature of the Constitution, fostered merely by the voters casting their votes regardless of whom they are voting for, and do they actually have an effective choice while casting their vote?

“Why do voters vote the way they do?” is a very complex question that cannot be answered with one simple reason. It does not seem to occur to the political establishment that the quality of candidates nominated by the political parties might be a contributory factor, and might itself be causing the much-touted “voter apathy”.

This is where the December 21, 2009 statement of the Gujarat Chief Minister that the objective was to “bring the voter, rather than the political party, centrestage” and to “strengthen democracy” becomes relevant. Political parties have been functioning, and controlling the governance of the country, without being on the “centrestage” for far too long. It is the political parties who, in a way, control or at least constrain the choice of the voters. They do this by the control they have on deciding on who can contest the election on their behalf. Prospective candidates are known to have had to even pay substantial sums of money to get party nominations in some parties. In others, the price of nominations may well be not cash but in kind. And once a person gets elected to the legislature, his/her choice of what to vote for and what to vote against in the legislature is again controlled by-guess who-the political party…by virtue of the whip and the anti-defection law.

It is, therefore, high time political parties were brought centrestage and their internal functioning made visible to the public. Voter turnout cannot be increased so long as the internal functioning of political parties is shrouded in the secrecy of the decisions taken by the “High Command”.

Democracy in India can best be strengthened by the political parties practising democracy in their internal functioning.n

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