Every general election, politicians claim to be aghast at the low turnout they see in cities, castigating the apathetic middle classes. This year, Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani suggested that voting be made compulsory.
This weekend, Gujarat went ahead and passed such a law for its local government bodies, with chief minister Narendra Modi even suggesting this could motivate the educated middle classes. Those who don’t vote are required to submit a reason to the relevant authorities. Now the Election Commission is watching with interest while Himachal Pradesh is considering following suit.
Before this becomes a nation-wide legislative epidemic, allow us to state the obvious: It’s very paradoxical that one democratic choice has to be “enforced” by restricting another choice. What’s more, such laws possibly misunderstand the reasons behind voter apathy.
We argued in a May editorial that there are certain costs peculiar to Indian democracy that cause middle-class voters to stay away: for instance, inaccessible or bad candidates. To Gujarat’s credit, it aims to alleviate some of these costs by providing voters with the option to say no to all candidates on the ballot—a measure that Mint has supported for polls nationwide.
Still, there are other costs a voter has to bear. This could be the small cost of standing in a queue, or the large cost of engaging in politics (to make an informed choice). Different voters have different ways to assess these costs, which governments aren’t in a position to alter. Gujarat’s law, for instance, possibly reduces the perceived cost of standing in line, because the cost of not showing up to vote— a bureaucrat hounding you to submit a reason, or a bribe— could be higher. But can such a law take away the cost of genuine political participation?
The honest truth is no. In modern democracies, most people have to earn livelihoods, which leaves them with little time for anything else. Herding them into a queue outside the voting booth may affect physical turnout, but will do nothing for genuine engagement. That can only come if the electorate is energized.
And that is the real tragedy. Compulsory voting is a weak substitute for what democratic politics should be: convincing, even inspiring, people to give a damn about more than their ordinary lives. Our politicians seem perennially incapable of that.
Will compulsory voting laws work in India? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org