Voter turnout is already high at 66.4 percent (file photo: PTI)
The Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Act has been passed by the state assembly and signed by Governor O.P. Kohli. But a growing controversy over the act’s provision that make not-voting in local body elections a penal offence has forced the Gujarat administration to rethink the bill.
"There is a possibility of litigation on the compulsory voting provision. Moreover, making voting a must may not go down well with people. Considering these aspects, the government has decided to hold the notification," an unnamed official told the Times of India.
The bill seeks to make voting compulsory in civic body polls for the first time in India. But enforcing compulsory voting is a practical challenge as the administration does not have any separate machinery for this.
“Officials appointed for elections are deputed for a limited period. This will not work if the election work extends beyond the polling day and counting. In municipal corporations like Ahmedabad, even if 20% voters don't vote, the numbers would run in several lakhs. To scrutinize their claims and punish them will be huge challenge. Top legal experts and bureaucrats have advised not go ahead in haste," another senior official said.
The bill was initially passed by the state assembly five years ago, but could not become law because the then governor, Kamla Beniwal, had returned it, noting that “forcing [the] voter to vote is against the principles of individual liberty”.
With Beniwal now no longer governor, the Gujarat government decided to resurrect the bill.
Yet most constitutional experts and the Election Commission feel that compulsory voting is against the concept of democracy.
“Let me ask you, what if we have a similar law at the Centre, and out of 83 crore-plus (over 830 million) voters, 10 per cent chose not to vote? Will you put eight crore (80 million) voters in jail or impose fines on them? Do we have jails to accommodate eight crore (80 million) voters?” Election Commissioner HS Brahma told the Indian Express.
According to the newspaper, the law also violates a fundamental democratic principle – the right of the citizen to exercise her choice, including the freedom not to vote.
Nevertheless, the state government is now going ahead with the second key provision in the bill: 50 percent seats in all local bodies are to be reserved for women. There is no controversy over this provision and it will be made effective immediately.