Should Voting Be Made Compulsory In India?

Posted on February 22, 2011 in Politics

By Deepa Ranganathan:

Democracy’s clichéd definition is–of the people, by the people and for the people. Each preposition is equally important so as to form a coherent democratic structure. As one would have observed, the definition begins with a crucial aspect–“of”, which means that any democracy is formed by a set of people who decide their own elected representatives.

An important and unavoidable reason why democracy in India isn’t exactly “successful” as it is presented to be is because of enormous corruption that has entered the Indian political scenario. Most candidates are bought; votes and voters are bought, while bribes and materials are given to potential voters to woo them. Experts, democracy-lovers and activists have all unanimously agreed how the situation may improve if the elections become more participatory. More are the number of people who participate in the formation of the government, less are the chances of corrupt, unworthy candidates to win or even stand for the elections.

More often than not, elections and election results are wrongly perceived and interpreted. If candidate A has won by ‘x’ number of votes, it does not necessarily mean that he represents the majority of his voters. The disparity between the population and the population that actually votes in our country is so huge that it is too easy to fall prey to such false claims.

Let us first examine the reasons why one must vote (compulsorily or otherwise). Ideally, as a citizen of your own country, one is expected to vote and participate in the formation of the government; it is an opportunity given to every eligible Indian that one mustn’t miss if he/she wishes to see a particular set of people ruling the country. The fact that you vote is living proof that you, as an individual, participated in the formation of a democracy as huge as India. But, more often than not, this doesn’t work as a sufficient reason to urge voters to come and exercise what is their fundamental duty as a citizen. One needs to be above 18 years of age in our country to be able to vote. But, how many of us actually take that extra effort to get out of the house and vote for our desired candidate? Going by most election statistical figures, average voter turn-out in most Indian states is not more than 60 per cent.

Given our population, these figures are a shame. The reason given by most educated voters, who do not have ignorance or lack of knowledge about the voting procedure as their excuse, is–that they do not believe their one vote can make any difference, or that there aren’t worthy enough candidates who deserve their vote. A counter to this is the concept of “Negative Vote” that was in the discussion forum not too long ago. To exercise a Negative vote would be like clicking on the “None of the above” option. It would, then, mean that the voter has expressed his/her dissatisfaction with all the candidates. However, this is not a plausible solution, precisely because it works in the favour of the candidates. Even if one were to give a “negative vote”, it doesn’t help the situation in any way as one among the given set of candidates would still win, with or without the voter’s vote.

Amidst all this arises a central question that has long been discussed and debated upon: should voting be made compulsory? Since the voter turnout is just about satisfactory, shouldn’t we ensure that there are more voters who exercise their rights? And one obvious way to do that is by making the entire exercise mandatory. Going strictly by the definition and demands of a democratic structure, making anything compulsory negates the very purpose of democracy, as an institution. Making something compulsory brings in the element of coercion and that borders around tyranny–the exact opposite of democracy.

However, on the other hand, a set of experts believe there is no other way to ensure that everyone votes and once that is taken care of, one can hope for a less corrupt, more equal and a more desirable government. I, personally, do not believe that making voting compulsory is the right way to achieve this. While the intention may be strong and truly right, the procedure is indeed questionable. If I’m compelled to vote, I’m robbed of my own free will, essentially.

Voter registration and attendance at a polling booth has been compulsory in counties like Australia since the 1920s. This is why Australia has one of the highest voter turnouts in the world. South American countries like Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela also have made sections of the voting procedure compulsory. But the plan has simply backfired. Venezuela does not have an impressive voting percentage to boast of; nor does the Netherlands, Mexico or even Greece. Merely making something compulsory doesn’t solve the problem. It’s better to have a 60 per cent turnout when we know that the people who voted did so voluntarily, out of their own free will and choice, than a 99 per cent turnout when we know that more than half of that astronomical figure voted out of compulsion and reluctance rather than willingness and choice.