Compulsory Voting: Did Modi try to make ‘exercising franchise’ a duty in Gujarat?

Compulsory Voting: Did Modi try to make ‘exercising franchise’ a duty in Gujarat?

Agency News

New Delhi, Jul 13 : The subject is certainly akin to a hornet's nest. The very idea of 'compulsory voting' has been tried and tested globally and in more ways than one - it has been considered a failure too.

However, a man with a 'difference' that he is - belonging to a party with a difference the BJP - Narendra Modi as the Gujarat Chief Minister had tried to make the voting mandatory in the local bodies' elections. That was circa 2010.

The then Rajasthan Governor Kamla Beniwal had opposed the move saying the proposed law violated Article 19(1) (A) of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, including the ‘right not to vote'.

The issue came back to the public domain through debate on no less than the floor of the 17th Lok Sabha - after a Private Member's Bill piloted by BJP lawmaker Janardhan Singh Sigriwal was taken up for debate on Friday.

Senior Biju Janata Dal parliamentarian Bhartruhari Mahtab, known for his doing detailed study of matters and men, stunned the House when in a rather irreplaceable style, he has said: "There is a difference between right and duty. In the past, the Chief Minister of Gujarat (none other than Mr Modi) was trying to make it a duty for municipal elections".

The Cuttack MP further pointed out that in 1951, when the Representation of People's Act was being debated, at that time the then Law Minister Dr B R Ambedkar had said - "Voting is a right and by converting it into a compulsory voting, you are making it a duty".

The lawmaker was also very specific - "Unless you make a change in the Constitution that this is not a right alone but it is also a duty, you cannot make it compulsory. It is a fundamental right". Nevertheless in the context of Gujarat, the issue was not given up by the BJP and later Modi's successor as the Chief Minister Anandiben Patel regime got the Bill passed. Gujarat became the first state to make voting compulsory in local polls after Governor O P Kohli sanctioned in November 2015 the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2009.

However, when it came to the discussion in the Lok Sabha on the merits and various other facets of Compulsory Voting, the debate took a curious turn with members even debating the powers and rights of the judiciary. Politically speaking, as if the democratic spirit was in full force in action when two BJP lawmakers opposed the party colleague's Private Member Bill.

During the Private Member's Business in the House, while Maharajganj MP Janardhan Singh Sigriwal strongly favoured making voting a compulsory act on the part of all citizens, his fellow MPs and importantly from the saffron outfit itself Ajay Teni Misra and Nishikant Dubey opposed the same.

Mr Dubey, a vocal MP was more forthright, "In whichever big country, the compulsory voting was tried, there was strong resentment....people had problems". Piloting the Bill, Mr Sigriwal said when over 33 per cent of citizens do not cast their votes in elections, that is a matter of concern in India. "Making voting compulsory proposition would make the Indian democracy more vibrant," he said.

"In this country, we talk about citizens' right, but when it comes to the people discharging their duties, we are found to be wanting," he remarked. However, speaking immediately after him, Mr Misra - a lawmaker representing Kheri parliamentary segment in Uttar Pradesh - said making voting a compulsory practice was not possible at this juncture ---- but he also said he is not opposing it just for the sake of opposing.

"With rise in education percentage among the population, people will voluntarily walk toward polling stations and exercise their franchise," he said.Moreover, he said making voting a 'compulsory practice' would essentially require a Constitutional amendment and "it is always better to make such a thing voluntarily".

Obviously, the debate remained inconclusive and would be taken up in subsequent sittings during this ongoing Budget session and also at a later stage. Going back to Gujarat, it ought to be noted that in August 2015, the Gujarat High Court stayed the implementation of the law that makes voting compulsory in the civic body elections in the state.

The Compulsory Voting draft law has been brought and debated in previous tenures of Lok Sabha as well. In July 2004, the Compulsory Voting Bill, 2004 was introduced as a Private Member Bill by Bachi Singh Rawat, a BJP MP. J P Agarwal of Congress brought a similar draft law in 2009. The then Law Minister, Veerappa Moily argued that if compulsory voting was introduced, Parliament would reflect, 'more accurately', the will of the electorate.

However, he also stated that active participation in a democratic set up must be voluntary, and not coerced.  As the debate goes on, there is a school of thought which says 'debating' compulsory voting is one of the 'misplaced priorities' in the contemporary political space. (UNI)