COMPULSORY VOTING – AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS COME

March 7, 2010

The first non Congress Government formed in New Delhi was the result of people’s anger against the 1975 emergency. In this government, headed by Shri Morarji Desai, I had my first experience of Government.The Prime Minister asked me whether I had any personal preference in the matter of portfolio. My response was unhesitating : Information and Broadcasting.

Three factors prompted me to make this choice. As a journalist I was familiar with the media. My opinion was that the maximum damage caused to democracy during the emergency was because of curbs imposed on the media and on media men. Thirdly, for long, I had been pleading that the Government stranglehold on Akashwani must be smashed, and autonomy be conferred on it.

As I and B Minister I came across the script of a feature broadcast by the BBC which I found of great interest in the course of my campaigning for electoral reforms. The programme was a serial on the functioning of British Parliament over the centuries. In these papers, I read about a remarkable incident that occurred in eighteenth century Britain.

A member of the House of Commons received a letter from his constituents in which he was asked to vote against certain excise proposals in the Budget. According to the BBC feature, the M.P. sent a stinging reply to his voters as follows :

“Gentlemen, I have received your letter about the excise, and I am surprised at your insolence in writing to me at all.

“You know, and I know, that I bought this constituency.

“You know, and I know, that I am now determined to sell it.

“And you know what you think I don’t know, that you are looking for another buyer.

“And I know what you certainly don’t know, that I have found another constituency to buy.”

Buying and selling of parliamentary constituencies in Britain was no exception then. It was the rule, Very often seats were publicly auctioned – and either sold outright or leased out on an annual basis : A parliamentary publication, Our Parliament, by Strathearn Gordon notes :

“Between 1812 and 1832, £5000 to £6000 was the ordinary price of a seat ‘purchased’ for Parliament or £1800 if ‘rented’ for a year.”

But today, elections in Britain are by and large clean, The history of electoral reforms in Britain should help dispel the general cynicism prevalent in India that there is no real remedy for the growing influence of money power in elections or that, as our communist friends are inclined to assert, in a ‘ bourgeois democracy’ this is inevitable.

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If a survey is taken of the comparative percentage of voting in different sectors of the society, classified education wise, I have little doubt that voting percentage among the graduates, the post graduates, and those in the still higher categories, would be far, far lower than at the lower rungs of society.

Is this not a situation that is bound to affect the quality of Indian democracy adversely ? Can this be changed ?

I feel it can be. One simple way is the innovative measure adopted by Narendra Bhai Modi – compulsory voting. Gujarat has introduced this measure for all local body elections. The Law has been passed by the state Assembly, but it is still to be implemented. The rules etc. are still being worked out.

Not many may be aware that as many as 25 countries inhabited by more than 700 million people today have compulsory voting even for their parliamentary election. These countries include Australia, Argentina, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Thailand and Singapore. I feel political thinkers in India also must apply their mind to this.

I have seen a lot of literature these days on the functioning of democracies. In these writings, concern is being expressed about the fact that in some of the important democracies of the world like Canada, UK, and France, voter turn out has been gradually declining, Compulsory voting, it is being increasingly felt, may be a remedy.

L.K. Advani
New Delhi

March 07, 2010

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