Friday, December 25, 2009

Compulsory voting?

I am a big fan of democracy. Of course, alternative forms of government have their own merits. Usually, the entertainment value of a monarchy is incredible. But let's park that aside for now.

We technically are 'the world's largest democracy'. Only largest because we've got over a billion folks. Certainly not the world's best or most effective or most legitimate. But maybe it is better than our neighbors to the north.

I've been reading that Narendra Modi of Gujarat CM fame is trying to make voting compulsory in Gujarat. Hmm. I've mulled over this for a bit. For too long have ordinary citizens complained that 'Gorment is useless. What good will voting do?'. And I do share some of their skepticism. Also, given the fact that good candidates are usually hard to come by, is it any use voting for just another elected representative? But then, I also believe that it is much easier to complain rather than to do something about it. If we really are seeking change, shouldn't we initiate the same? Shouldn't we actually try to become part of the whole political process? And where better to start than to actually go out and vote.

But the government forcing us to vote also seems rather a contradictory stance in a democracy. Honestly, I believe government shouldn't be telling us what to do or what not to do. Like telling us if we can dance in nightclubs or not. Or if women can drink beer at a pub in Mangalore. Sorry, Mr. Muthalik, but that's none of your business, either. If a citizen chooses not to vote, s/he must be given that option as well. Of course, I'd expect that they then shut up about the whole process and not complain. Just pay your taxes and be done with it.

I do know that in places where voting has been made compulsory (usually if you don't vote, you end up paying a fine), voter turnouts have been boosted. Whether that has made a difference to the quality of candidates or government remains to be seen.

It'd be interesting to see what would happen if voting were made compulsory in urban centers of India. For a fact, most of the upper middle-class and the affluent couldn't be bothered to vote. It's either too hot, or too rainy, or too damned long a line. And the cynicism that no government would cater to their needs also is a leading cause of their indifference to the whole electoral process. I mean, yeah, I'll give you free electricity, but only if you're poor and don't pay any taxes. And I'll keep the prices of kerosene low, so that the people who pay taxes can pay more for their petrol.

It's an interesting conundrum. If the middle-class were forced to vote, would our politicians be forced to consider what they can do for them? Like improving public transport? (Or actually building one where it fails to exist?) And if the we know that they'll be so many people of a hitherto largely untapped economic demographic will that be a factor in more (better?) people contesting elections? If I know that 80% of the South Bangalore constituents will be voting, and knowing that I can reach out to the 50% of them who are my 'electoral base', will the fact that 40% of the voters might be inclined to vote for me cause me to stand for elections? Because, I know what that 40% wants. Better urban infrastructure. Period. They couldn't be bothered with subsidized electricity or kerosene. Again, very interesting.

I'm still sitting on the fence on this one. Inclined to move towards compulsory voting, but my left-leaning liberal views cause a visceral reaction in me whenever the government forces me to do anything. Maybe compulsory voting with negative voting allowed would be a nice one. Hah!

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