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Friday, January 8, 2010

As political reforms go, Modi’s must-vote bill is an important step

There was a time when the Indian version of the Honours List was the strict prerogative of the State. In the market economy age, it isn’t necessary for India’s achievers to lobby ministers and officials to get their names on the Republic Day list: there are alternatives.

The ‘season’ in Delhi and Mumbai witnesses a surfeit of functions organized by media houses, ‘academic’ institutes and industry-sponsored foundations aimed at honouring those who have apparently made a difference to the lives of others. There are awards for sports, media, literature, entertainment, governance, philanthropy and business. And, of course, there are the invariable awards for the “Indian of the Year”— politicians are traditionally favoured — and for “Lifetime achievement”. The wicked people say that many awards are rigged, and aimed at securing collateral benefits for the sponsors. But, like the ‘news for sale’ scandal that has gripped the media, that is another story altogether.

A striking feature of the awards is their sheer predictability. Those who observe these things keenly can more or less predict those who are favoured and those who are out of the radar. Taking a cue from the Nobel committee, it is almost pre-ordained that every second award will be offered to Rahul Gandhi — not necessarily for what he has achieved but because, like President Barack Obama, he has potential. For those awarding bodies that have the clout to arrange an acceptance speech (or at least a message), the prime minister will be honoured — again, not necessarily for what he has achieved, but for the position he holds. Among chief ministers, Delhi’s Sheila Dikshit is a permanent favourite for purely logistical reasons.

Equally significant are those who invariably get left out. Orissa’s Naveen Patnaik has about as many achievements as the Delhi chief minister: winning three consecutive elections. Yet, it is rare to see him being honoured. There are few collateral advantages to honouring Patnaik.

Another notable who has been bypassed for the awards is the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. For those who measure achievement through the prism of economic success, Modi stands out. He has presided over the highest growth rate of any state in the past years; he has made efficiency a yardstick of governance; he has curbed corruption dramatically; he has arrested the decline of agricultural productivity in his state; he has put environment on the agenda of development; and he has revelled in innovative governance. By any measure, Modi should have been swimming in awards showered on him.

It is not that his achievements are unknown. Two years ago, a media house conducted a viewers’/readers’ poll for its Indian of the Year. Modi came out tops. Yet, vox populi was discounted in favour of a hand-picked jury, which, predictably, settled for a more socially acceptable candidate. When it comes to Modi, what matters is the burden of the singer and not the song.

Last month, the Modi government undertook an audacious piece of legislation aimed at making the political process more wholesome and more accountable and, by implication, less venal. The Gujarat assembly passed a bill making voting compulsory for all elections to local bodies. In short, universal adult franchise was extended to universal adult participation — a measure adopted by 32 countries and actively enforced in 19. Left to himself, Modi would probably have made voting in assembly and Lok Sabha elections obligatory. But since these come under the purview of the Centre, such a move must await another day.

An interesting feature of the Gujarat legislation is that there is a provision for voters to reject all the candidates on offer — a “none of these” option. Presumably, if the majority of voters rejects the list of aspirants, a re-election will become mandatory. In other words, the act of either neutrality or protest has been built into a system of compulsory participation.

As political reforms go, the Gujarat legislation is one of the most important initiatives in recent times. Yet, it is curious that it has been greeted with an embarrassed but deafening silence, not least from those who are loudest in their indignation over the present debasement of electoral politics. In true babu fashion, the Election Commission has underlined the administrative difficulties of ensuring total participation, and some liberals have expressed dismay at the attempt to codify the obligations of citizenship. Yet others have pointed to the absurdities involved in dragging the sick, infirm and transient voters into the polling booth. In time, there may even be theological objections to a system of participation that isn’t divinely ordained. Even within Modi’s own party, the Gujarat legislation has not secured unequivocal endorsement. The temptation to see the measure as Modi’s personal, overbearing initiative has clouded dispassionate assessment.

The dramatic consequences of compulsory voting need to be spelt out. For a start, since a large percentage of electioneering costs governs the turnout of voters, it is certain to reduce the importance of money power quite dramatically. There will be an automatic shift in focus from ensuring voter turnout to publicizing what a party or candidate stands for. There will be a shift in politics from organization to issues. By implication, the role of the apparatchiks in the political system will be devalued.

Secondly, a major distortion in our election system results from bloc-voting by one section and the relative non-participation by a larger, unorganized and amorphous group of citizens. An organized group can punch above its weight and distort the verdict by capitalizing on the passivity of others. Compulsory voting puts all citizens, regardless of class, gender, caste and religion, on an equal footing. A net consequence could be the lowering of sectarian tensions as an instrument of voter mobilization.

Finally, a government elected with the endorsement of a majority, as opposed to a majority of the minority that turns up to vote, will enjoy extra legitimacy. This, in turn, will be a weapon of decisive governance.

That there are logistical hurdles in the path of an effective implementation of the compulsory voting scheme is undeniable. First, the preparation of electoral rolls must become more rigorous, and there must be easy procedures for citizens to enlist as voters. Secondly, the system of postal voting must be enlarged to cover a larger group of citizens than just government servants and members of the armed forces. If voting is deemed compulsory, it must become more convenient. It may even become necessary to extend the hours of physical voting. Thirdly, there is a difference between making voting obligatory and making it coercive. Since the idea is to increase voter turnout from the all-India average of 55 per cent to around 90 per cent (a 100 per cent turnout is an impossibility), there should be no harassment of those who are either unable to vote or choose to be libertarians. A system of incentives rather than punishment may be more appropriate — a subject that needs more deliberation.

Democracy is one of India’s most cherished attributes. The irony is that this great pillar of strength and national resolve has been systematically undermined by operational shortcomings of the electoral system. With growing prosperity, there is a fear that India could go the way of many Western democracies and become indifferent to the political process. Low turnouts in elections lead to the hijacking of democracy by a determined minority. It contributes to the emotional secession of the contended from citizenship and accords a premium on discontent. Measures to rectify the distortions warrant serious consideration regardless of our personal view of the man who made it happen in Gujarat.

The Telegraph, January 8, 2010


No Mist said...

Dear Swapan,

By the yardstick of your own essay you are guilty of 'late awakening' too. Anyway 'subah ka bhoola shaam ko ...'

You are correct in asserting that incentives will prove more beneficial than punishment. It is also a logistic problem. If offenders/evaders (of any law) are too many, it is a herculean task to enforce. So a judicious choice of incentives must be put to encourage confirmation to the law. Once the number of evaders evaders are under control, we can include some punishment too. The punishment could be increased gradually as the evaders decrease less and less in number along with a very slight increase in incentive.

In this case the evaders are to the tune of 40% of electorate. So the question is of appropriate incentive. To my mind the best incentive is to offer rebate in taxes. Someone who duly casts her/his vote in all the elections in that year could be given a tax rebate of 10% in income tax. With UID and PAN card system in place, it would not be difficult to implement this scheme.

Those who do not cast their vote for 3 elections (for either LS, VS or local) - either consecutive or non consecutive - will be slapped with an extra 10% of income tax in the financial year in which the third evaded election took place.

For the non-tax payers we can provide a free medical insurance to them. To keep the costs in check as well as to ensure that this insurance is really useful, we can provide insurance only on OPD consultations (by general practitioners) as opposed to the prevalent practice of insuring only hospitalization charges.

I am sure there are many variations of above financial incentives/punishment which is implementable once UID infrastructure is in place. I feel a financial inducement or punishment is much more effective than corporal punishment.

Balaji said...

As a conservative, I have lots of issues with Compulsory voting. Its a violation of people's fundamental rights given by the constitution and certain inalienable rights which may or may not be given by our constitution.

But I see you have already taken these into consideration when you mentioned that people can remain libertarian. So don't want list conservative objections here.

Getting more practical, we can be rest assured that Modi has no great intention of strengthening democracy. Kerala, Pondicherry and many north-eastern states regularly vote nearly twice as much as Gujarathis have ever done. Modi was the guy who discouraged panchayats from conducting elections and instead 'select' sarpanchs by 'consensus'. He even spent tax payers money as incentive to disenfranchise whole villages. That Modi now talking of democracy is just a laugh.

BJP in Bangalore deleted scores of Muslim voters from the electoral list. The state law minister bragged about it in a party forum where I was present.

Make voting compulsory for 'Hindus' and delete Muslim names from the electoral rolls is the likely BJP gameplan.

No Mist said...

There are some more electoral reforms needed in our nation. To decrease the cacophony in our democracy we may introduce -

1. Anybody who is not in top 2 in any election (LS, VS, Municipal, Gram Panchayat, etc) should be barred from contesting any election from anywhere in India for the next 3 years.

2. Any MP/MLA/Corporator who resigns (either verbally or in paper) should be immediately discharged from duty. Appearance on TV uttering the words "i am resigning" or equivalent should be considered valid resignation unless (s)he proves otherwise within 2 days. this will reduce the blackmailing tactics. And a resignee will be barred from contesting any election anywhere in India for 3 years.

3. Attendance in LS/RS/VS/Municipality should be 75% compulsory else the candidate should be invalid for next 3 elections or 8 years whichever is maximum. walkout from the parliament is considered equivalent to absence.

4. Anybody who wins confidence vote is eligible for a minimum of 2 years of validity. The govt can be sacked only by impeachment (or equivalently difficult process in case of VS) in this 2 year duration. And any such impeachment process must be initiated by the leader of opposition.

5. finally a suggestion from swaminomics - any litigation against a legislator must be heard on priority basis. And a convicted legislator must be punished twice the punishment for normal citizens.

Anonymous said...

"Make voting compulsory for 'Hindus' and delete Muslim names from the electoral rolls is the likely BJP gameplan."

So what's wrong in it ? What is your problem crackpot ? Politics mai toh ye-sab chalta hai. They r politician not saint. Modi ka naam lo or is Balaji ki g**** mai mirchi lag jaati hai. Yaar tu jakar apni alag party kyu nahi bana leta, yaha chilla kar tujhe kya milta hai ?

aw said...

Hi Swapan,

An award for purely logistical reasons - I chuckled at the thought. Surely Shiela Dikshit would not be happy about that.

Apart from couple of articles (with negative comments) in the IE I did not see much comment about Modi's initiative.
In fact postal voting / email voting should be encouraged. There should also be an attempt to freeze the candidates early on ( 8 to 10 weeks) prior to the elections and have ability to start voting using these methods much before official polling date.
It is time the middle class get out of their drawing rooms and participate in the governance of their country.



Anonymous said...

I agree with Balaji. Compulsory voting is just another example of big government and I oppose it strongly. We might well stop talking of libertarianism and liberal nationalism and become Soviet type socialists. But excluding muslims from voting lists is nothing new.

At the only BJP party forum I attended here, RSS guys talked of Gujarat model and K'taka model of excluding as many people as possible from voters lists, as if it was some type of gold standard thing to do. When I wanted to know what the RSS guys were doing there, they asked me what I was doing there. From their point, that was a good reply I think, as I was a first timer. But this why the BJP is going to dogs.

regards, J

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 4.30 am:

People like you are the biggest problem. Let me guess, keeping people out of voter's lists sab chalta hai, like Shibu Soren and the Reddy brothers and Bangaru Laxman and killing muslims in Gujarat sab chala. And that is why the BJP will lose the next elections in K'taka. Why don't you go back to the RSS or VHP or BD gutter where you crawled out of and leave us to rebuild our party?


supporter said...

Though compulsory voting is not an original idea, it is still path-breaking and a huge leap towards a less flawed democracy. The other political reform India badly needs is financial transparency. India could do with a couple of more such people with vision and courage to take such actions.

Anonymous said...

"keeping people out of voter's lists sab chalta hai, like Shibu Soren and the Reddy brothers and Bangaru Laxman and killing muslims in Gujarat sab chala"
I never supported Sorens and Reddys let me tell u. Pls don't mix "purely" political steps like kicking out your anti-voters out of the list with the likes of Sorens which in my view was a last nail in the coffin of the BJP. Politics mai hai toh politics karenge na koi saint-giri toh nahi karenge ? That's why I believe keeping your opposite voters out is purely a political step and a justified one, every party does it. Jis ko vote dalna hai voh chinta kare. But according to your types it necessary to criticize the BJP blindly, which you and Balaji are doing. I am also a critique of the BJP but I believe in judging issues on their merits. BTW is this anonymous the Balaji himself ?

"And that is why the BJP will lose the next elections in K'taka.
Agreed. Of course it'll lose the Karnataka election, not only that it'll lose the M.P election also and also LS election in 2014. These are writings on the wall. Every 'thinking' people know it. Nobody is 'denying' it nd those who r denying r deluding themselves. But the reasons of these defeats r NOT going to be those which you have mentioned. BJP is going to lose these elections b'coz of completely different reasons which I'll explain later in some future post. I want to keep this reply of mine to the point now.

"Why don't you go back to the RSS or VHP or BD gutter where you crawled out of and leave us to rebuild our party?"

Sorry to disappoint u I don't belong to chaddi brigade and their loony outfits. But hey don't be happy coz I defend, support and justify the post Godhra reaction vigorously, proudly and shamelessly. Any problem ?

Indian Nationalist said...

I think Swapan Das Gupta has a valid point.

Our democracy as such is basically flawed. There are too partisan people in our country who will vote for their own self-interests of their community at the hindrance of the nation.

Few examples:-
1. The Muslims will always vote for ANY party which will oppose the BJP. That the Congress is the principle party against the BJP makes the bulk of the Muslim votes go to them.

2. The Christians do the same. Having Sonia Gandhi as the head of the Nation is reason enough for more than 98% of the christians to vote for Congress.
I knew a Christian guy who says that BJP is the prime reason for the backwardness, illiteracy and poverty in the country. He says Congress is the best party for development. When asked why?..He Cites Uttar Pradesh as an example:- UP has not been ruled by BJP for more than 15 YEARS!!.
And he completely ignores the development done by BJP in Gujarat, Bihar, Karnataka, Jharkhand, MP, Maharashthra during its rule.

When you have such Partisan people in our country who are NOT ready to look beyond their narrow Religious thinking, It is difficult to run a democracy.

So what effectively happens is that in the case of Non-compulsory voting is that BEFORE the start of the elections about 40% of the Total electorate (Muslims+christians) have already voted for 1 particular party and so if the other party (In this case the BJP) has to come to power then 60% of the remaining communities have to give their 100% votes to it.......Which as we know in Democracy is not possible.

So the only solution to have a level playing field is to have compulsory voting so that each and EVERY vote is counted and Democracy is not ambushed by a percentage of partisan people based on religion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Swapan

My comments on your recent discussion on Indian students in Australia. I have gone through recent coverage in Australian and Indian media about these incidents and must say the following:

- Both sides need to solve this problem intelligently and not show just emotions. As there is lot of interdependence on both sides.
- There may be some racial element in these incidents but let the authorities come up with their enquiry first before we make a judgement.
- Every country has some racial issues, do not forget when workers from Bihar and UP travel to Punjab, Maharashtra etc. they also face the same problems. And they way they have been treated by people in Punjab, New Delhi and Maharashtra is questionable.
- The problems of migrants has been there for many years and in many countries and there is some responsibility on both sides the host country and on people who are moving to new country.
- The behaviour of these students in Australia is absolutely poor. They do not have any public sense, infact I think India suffers from this alot. People lack common sense and do not care for public property.
- These students understand their rights very easily but do not care about their responsibilities.
- If Australian government is attracting this mob from India to come and study and get PR eventually they are doing good to these people who do not have any furture in India with out any education or skills. India should be thankful to Australia.
- Your comments on US attracting cream only is not compelte. There are lot institutes in US which are just visa shops and atracted low level of students. Of course it is a big market and have got more to offer in terms of careers and money but that does not mean that every Indian go to US is capable of achieving high academic levels.
- I left India in mid 80's and I can easily say that all said and done, Australia has been a fair society by and large. Infact Indian society is one of the most corrupt and hypocrate socities on this planet with very low ethical standards.
- People in India are so selfish and do not have any community values. Infact the whole country is suffering from these problems. From our leaders to our common people on the roads.

To finish this debate I can easily say the women travelling in Sydney and Melbourne are much safer then travelling in Mumbai and New Delhi!

Thanks for your recent views on this very important current topic.

Jaswinder Chawla

supporter said...

Majority of politicians in India are status quoists, few are bothered about reforms, they only believe in just making hay as long as the sun shines. Not surprisingly real political reforms (not cosmetic ones) have been very few far between. BJP can be credited with most of them. Some like anti defection laws are debatable, others like liberalisation of media actually proved beneficial for their detractors than themselves. Notwithstanding that, BJP should continue with political reforms at least in states which are with them instead of saying "we'll do this and that once we come to power". IMO that's the way to go.

Lost In Venus said...

"And Ofcourse there are Indian Of The year awards"
What a way to kick rajdeep sardesi's ass and still get called on his show to debate about.. hats off to you.
There is every bit of truth in u r article and iam impressed that following you was in a way good to know that, you hold a mirror to the society and not a biased one at that. But the question remains to ask is, why give so much of a priority to an award form a news channale? i know in a matter of days ever news channel will start giving its on indian of the year award and like the film awards which have mushroomed and have lost faith in them , we will soon get over these as well..

Dhruv said...

Guess even if there were no Gujarat riot , Modi would have still been unpopular with a large section of powerful people such as the politicians and the media.

His ability to provide effective Governance , his refusal to get corrupted and his capability to successfully communicate the results he is achieving to the common man in Gujarat puts him in direct conflict of interest with almost every power hungry , dishonest and chalu politician/ bureaucrat and the self-appointed power brokers in the media section who overestimate their reach and influence.
Modi is single handedly challenging them all ... the stinking system and the powerful set of people who preside over this rot, for whom the pathetic state of affairs in India is ideal ground to prosper. He is against the judge who fails to deliver justice , he is against the lawyers who manhandles the police on the streets, he is against babus who sit and sleep over files , he is against the politicians who has nothing to show in terms of results even after ruling the country for decades, he is against the police who live and breath corruption , he is against media who is little more than publicity houses of corrupt politicians , who take care of their owners interests and in some cases there firang stake holders, sometimes adopting unethical practices(paid news) . He is pulling them out of their comfort-zones , and that is what is irking them.

Modi is indeed a lion, single handedly fighting this whole rotten system . Its indeed heartening that influential and good people from public life like Amitabh Bachchan are taking note, mustering courage, coming out and providing him support . Modi indeed is winning this battle , slowly but surely , change can be seen.

Predict in an year or so , inspite of the best efforts of his rivals, Modi will become hugely powerful, rather the most powerful leader of India ...Good will prevail over evil !!

Tarun Malaviya said...

Welcome back Swapnada,

We need all your fire power to push the Right Agenda ahead.

Right Angle said...

A positive review swapan.. We can have both incentives for voting, and dis-incentives for NOT-Voting, combinedly..

For example, for those who voted regularly, they would get bank-loans, with some .5 less interest. Or else, preference in government queue, like gas connection, power connection etc..

For those who dont vote, they lose priority over those who votes..

The most important segment we have to target is the educated middle class and the upper class, who treat election day as just another holiday.. For them, NOT voting should result in considerable inconvenience or loss to them, and we have to design our approach in such a way..

For example, when a person applies for some government job, and when two persons are equally talented, we can consider the past voting record for selecting the candidate.. if one has not voted, he will lose the job..

We have to create a situation where even slightest possibility of NOT voting will result in personal loss somewhere down the line..

For those who could not vote, they have to provide relevant proofs that they are really not able to vote. Such thing has to be verified thoroughly

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 7.03 Jan 9

Sure, I have a problem. But the bigger problem is that the Gujarat riots was the single biggest issue that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2004 elections. Look what that has done to the BJP.

I was at a 'cards party' of a group of elderly all 60 plus Iyengar Brahmins 2 months ago.Maybe about 10-12 people, husbands and wives. All voted for Vajpayee. Now they say loudly and angrily to the one BJP supporter still voting for the party 'Wherever BJP is in power, there are riots! The first thing they did on coming to power in Delhi is change the name of Hotel Ashoka to Hotel Ashok! These fellows think democracy is a licence to let goondas run wild in the name of Hindutva, what is this Hindutva anyway, it means nothing, it is just garbage' etc. etc. The gentleman who voted for BJP this time also was literally shouted down. This shouting match and the cards game took place in front of a puja room, btw, all are devout Vaishnavites.

I think Modi should be projected as PM candidate in the next elections. The heavy defeat that will follow only will allow for the party to be rebuilt with good political ideas.


Anonymous said...

"Sure, I have a problem. But the bigger problem is that the Gujarat riots was the single biggest issue that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2004 elections."
Then I wonder why BJP won elections in three states prior to LS election. Wonder why it won other state elections after the 2004 election defeat.

So listen you "confused liberal" it doesn't matter how much u try to project Guj riots as the reason behind BJP's 2004 LS election defeat facts aren't going to change. Forget abt hardcore Congressi even Sonia in her wildest dream didn't imagine of victory.

All these post LS result reasons for d defeat r perceptions --in the name of analysis-- created by visual media which don't take much time to change. Remember.

The reasons for the defeat of BJP in 2004 r so well known that I don't want to waste my telling them again. I've not taken a theka to educate duffer like u.

"I was at a 'cards party' of a group of elderly all 60 plus Iyengar Brahmins 2 months ago.Maybe about 10-12 people, husbands and wives. All voted for Vajpayee."
So the thinking of these useless geriatrics is enough for you to make the perception and at reach the conclusion that Modi is bad ? Can u ask these people they voted for Vajpayee in 2004 eLS election or they "discovered", "Wherever BJP is in power, there are riots!", only after the defeat of the party ?

BTW do u really think views of these old ppl matter in the era of youth voter ? Oh! remember, since I've touched the topic of youth voter let me tell u mine experience. In the last LS election my bhangi and chamhar (obviously they belong to SC caste)friends told me they r voting for the BJP only b'coz there is "talk" of Modi playing a "major" role in next government if BJP comes to power. It's a real story let me tell not a fake one. These people earlier used to vote for Congress. See what mere talk of Modi has done to the ppl of these castes who don't even touch the lotus.

And for FYI poor Vajpayee failed to sway the Brahmins of U.P in the favor of BJP, forget abt others. Can u tell me any reason for that ? I don't the reason but when I was in 10th class my Sanskrit sir, who is a Brahmin, used to say this in the class "mera Atalji se mohbhang tab se ho gaye jab se humne Dainik Bhaskar ma pada ki Atalji ne China yatra mai fish curry or chicken khaya" Hmmmmmm

"These fellows think democracy is a licence to let goondas run wild in the name of Hindutva, what is this Hindutva anyway, it means nothing, it is just garbage'"
I agree Hindutva is crap and nonsense but it was not so before BJP has made it what it is by discrediting it again nd again.

[continued in next post]

Anonymous said...

[continued from the previous post]

"I think Modi should be projected as PM candidate in the next elections. The heavy defeat that will follow only will allow for the party to be rebuilt with good political ideas."

Now ur talking like a clever chap aren't you ? Breaking News: Confused liberal Balaji can also think sala! Fun aside. As I myself have said before it's writing on the wall that BJP will get less than 100 seats in 2014 LS election coz people don't see it as alternative anymore, BJP and its top leadership has been discredited badly in the eyes of public etc etc. So I just hope and wish BJP realizes this truth that it's no more a political force in India and going to get seats less than 100 in 2014 election and selects women with no base, whom BJP voters hate: Sushma Swaraj of Balaji as the PM candidate for 2014 LS. Thereby finishing off this very very very clever lady nuisance once and for all. I just pray your wish to see Modi as PM candidate in 2014 doesn't get fulfill. Just pray BJP survives this hard times and re-invent itself coz in 2019, it after all has to come in power with Modi as PM who would be in his 70 at that time. How I get the conviction that BJP is "likely" to come in power in 2019 ? I'll tell dat theory later, abhi bohut likh liya.

supporter said...


You don't vote for a party just because 10-12 60 year olds think you should, do you?

Common Hindu said...

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