Gujarat's compulsory voting law will marginalise minorities
It is a legislative alternative to the organisational effort required to increase Hindu voter turnout.
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Despite widespread criticism, the Gujarat government is set to notify the law on compulsory voting in time for the upcoming local body elections in October. The Bill piloted by then chief minister Narendra Modi was passed twice by the Gujarat Assembly but was blocked by then governor Kamla Beniwal. However, the new Gujarat governor OP Kohli cleared the Bill making it a law. The Act makes it incumbent for all registered voters to vote or be liable for yet undefined punishment so that "people take it [Act] seriously".
There has been stiff opposition to the Act on both principle and the logistics of its implementation. Detractors of compulsory voting have argued that voting or not voting is a choice, and coercing citizens to vote violates constitutionally guaranteed rights such as individual liberty and Freedom of Speech. Others, like Election Commissioner HS Brahma have questioned the implementation of law given that the number of non-voters is too large for consistent and uniform application of punishment. The BJP state unit on the other hand has sought justification in the "duty of the voter to vote at election" to improve political participation. At one level, it may seem ironic that a party that has cleared Bills in the state Assembly after suspending all Opposition MLAs should bring a law on compulsory voting; however, this Act is another well-planned measure to further majoritarianism. Given that the law was initiated by the prime minister who recently told a newspaper that "fundamentally there's no difference" between running a state and the nation, the law has national implications. A review of the last general election shows the dangers of this law.
BJP swept the 2014 general elections with 282 MPs to win the first Parliamentary majority in 30 years; however, the details present a more sectarian picture. In a country with 14 per cent Muslims, not one of BJP's 282 MPs is a Muslim. After BJP's unprecedented victory, senior VHP leader Ashok Singhal said BJP's victory was a "blow to Muslim politics" and the Lok Sabha polls had shown that elections can be won without Muslim support. As indeed it was.
The BJP's absolute majority came on the back of upper-caste Hindu consolidation especially in the Hindi heartland where 56 per cent of the upper-caste Hindus voted for BJP+, which represents a 30 percentage point increase from the 2009 elections. On the other hand, only eight per cent of the Muslims voted for BJP, up from four per cent during the last election. A whopping 85 per cent of the BJP's seats came from the 11 Hindi speaking states, which account for only 55 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats. This completely bucks the trend of the last 11 general elections in 40 years, where support for the winning alliance was more broad-based with an average of 60 per cent of seats from the Hindi speaking states and 40 per cent from the non-Hindi speaking states.
While it is true that the projection of Modi played a significant role in the elections, the RSS was instrumental in ensuring high voter turnout among the Hindus. There is much anecdotal evidence that RSS pracharaks systematically fanned out in the Hindi heartland canvassing Hindu households exhorting them to turn out in high numbers and vote for a strong leader to take on national issues (Pakistan and minority appeasement are two enduring leitmotifs). The result is evident. In the 189 constituencies where BJP and Congress were the top two vote getters, the average increase in voter turnout (from 2009) was 11.4 per cent. Of these, the BJP won 166 out of the 189 seats. Compare that with the 115 constituencies where BJP did not contest; the average increase in voter turnout was a mere 4.3 per cent.
However, dependence on the Sangh for electoral victory imposes considerable constraints on Modi. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was credited with keeping the Sangh Parivar on a tight leash to concentrate on his development agenda (or at least the marketing of it). However, as prime minister, the RSS looms large over Modi sarkar so much so that an RSS-government coordination committee was set up to institutionalise Sangh's involvement in governance. The Sangh has also played spoilsport in two key Modi initiatives with the Sangh making common cause with the Opposition on land acquisition amendments and labour reform.
Reducing dependency on the RSS electoral machine is thus imperative for Modi. Compulsory voting is a legislative alternative to the organisational effort required to increase Hindu voter turnout. This has to be seen in the backdrop of concerted efforts by the BJP to consolidate all castes into the Hindu fold while simultaneously polarising communities along religious lines. In Gujarat with a mere nine per cent Muslim population, the law is a sure way to marginalise minorities from electoral politics. Similar logic holds at the national level where minorities constitute only 18 per cent of the total population (14 per cent Muslim). This will also have implications on minority representation: under Modi in Gujarat, not a single Muslim was given a ticket in the last Assembly election. Uttar Pradesh did not elect a single Muslim MP out of the 80 it sends to the Parliament despite the community being an essential constituency of all political parties except the BJP in the state.
Electoral implications aside, the law mandating compulsory voting turns the concept of state accountability on its head. An official who helped draft the Gujarat Bill said, "There will be a penalty. When a law is passed, people should take it seriously" and added that the government was "mulling punitive action like withdrawing BPL cards and discontinuing government subsidy on kerosene and cooking gas" against "defaulters". The very notion that the government can withhold its developmental obligations to the citizen as punitive action is rife with authoritarianism. Furthermore, given the sheer logistics, the application of the law is likely to be arbitrary and liable for misuse and harassment. Some proponents of compulsory voting have argued that increased voter turnout will increase legitimacy of the government; however, a democratic government earns legitimacy through its own accountability not punishment for the citizenry.