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Compulsory voting law in Gujarat: Modi "abstained" from House when law was introduced in Dec 2009

OP Kohli
By Our Representative
Gujarat governor OP Kohli’s recent decision to legitimise the controversial law, passed in the state assembly twice in the past, to make voting to local governing bodies compulsory, has come following five-year-long apprehensions in Gujarat that those who do cast their vote without “valid” reasons would face punitive, perhaps criminal, action. Called Gujarat Local Authorities Law (Amendment) Act, the law was first passed in the Gujarat state assembly on December 19, 2009. Interestingly, when the law was voted in the assembly, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was not present in the House. He, instead, opted to "watch" the proceedings sitting in the chief minister’s chamber of the state assembly.
The law is known to have been drafted under the direct advice of Modi following "consultations" with the State Election Commission, responsible for holding local body polls, say insiders. Among those who took special interest in drafting the was was senior IAS bureaucrat Rajnikant M Patel, a Marxist-turned-saffron supporter, who resigned from the government to fight state assembly polls on BJP ticket in December 2012. Justifying the lw, Modi declared said that it would help “curb black money, rampant in electoral expense right now.” He did not explain how. Patel is currently BJP MLA from a constituency in Ahmedabad.
While the punitive actions are to form part of the rules to be drafted by the Gujarat government, and placed in the state assembly for a nod, the officials who drafted the Bill say these should include depriving individuals of advantages from government scheme. “If the citizen has rights, he or she should also have duties towards democracy”, a senior bureaucrat, who was one of the brains behind the compulsory voting law, said. If all goes well and it is not challenged, the law will take effect in the forthcoming elections to six municipal corporations, 31 district panchayats, 231 taluka panchayats and 53 nagarpalikas in Gujarat are due in October 2015.
The law defines the the voter failing to turn up to vote as “defaulter”, and the government will decide on what do with such a person. “Such defaulters may be deprived of below poverty line (BPL) card, government service, or subsidized loan”, the bureaucrat said. The defaulter will be declared as such by the election officer after serving notice to be replied within one month, explaining the reason for failing to vote.
The exempted category include a person who is “physically incapable due to illness”, or is “absent in on the date of election from the country or the state of Gujarat”. If the explanation is not to the satisfaction of the election officer, the defaulter would "face the tune."
Dr Kamla
Former governor Dr Kamla, who refused to sign the law twice, gave three reasons for her decision. First of all, to make voting to all local self-governing bodies compulsory was a violation of Article 19 of the Indian Constitution, which gives Indian citizens freedom of speech and expression. Secondly, the provision which seeks to punish those who do not turn up to vote was considered violation of the fundamental freedom of citizens. And lastly, there were several countries where compulsory voting had failed. These included Italy, Netherlands, Austria and Peru.
Dr Kamla also objected to clubbing the compulsory voting provision with 50 per cent reservation for women in local bodies as part of the same low. Objecting to this, Dr Kamla asked the government to come up with a new law, dropping the provision of compulsory voting, and preserving 50 per cent reservation, up from 33 per cent, for women in local bodies. But the Gujarat government refused to oblige.
In line with Dr Kamla’s views, the Opposition Congress all along demanded that the Gujarat government should come up with a separate bill in the forthcoming state assembly session to provide 50 per cent reservation to women in local bodies. “If the ruling BJP comes up with a separate bill on it, we will support it”, then opposition leader Shaktisinh Gohil had said, adding, “Several countries, which had made voting compulsory have reconsidered the provision, as they could not enforce it.”

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