Monday, August 17, 2015

Is there anything 'compulsory' that the government needs to do?

It is compulsory for the citizens to vote in the local body elections in Gujarat. If you don’t vote, you will be fined and asked for an explanation. Citizens are often blamed by the government and its representatives these days for not keeping the streets cleaned, for not paying enough taxes and now, for not making the democracy work. So the government steps in and makes voting compulsory. Some of us have been voting for many years and some of us have not been – mainly because the politics of the day never excited us to go out and vote. Not having witnessed any changes in the day-to-day situations, cynicism creeps in and voting does not seem like a fruitful exercise. Politicians do not realise that it is their job to ensure that voting remains relevant in our democracy and political contests remain alive. But it is always too much to expect anything from the politicians.

Very well, we will all vote then, without engaging in the conceptual confusion of whether voting is our right or duty or both! But there is a fundamental question about the relationship between the government and the people – should there be mandatory and legally binding accountability on either side when it comes to fulfilling fundamental duties? The relationship between citizens and government is always give and take. As citizens, we may not mind converting our political right as a compulsory duty. In return, we should also make a few things compulsory for the government to do. We should ask the government to mandatorily eliminate child malnourishment or child labour. The government should mandatorily and in legally binding manner, ensure clean water to all or education to all. If they fail to do so, the citizens can crowd-source funds and sue the government!

We do not sue the government because we understand that developmental issues are complex and it is not practical to demand such accountability on mandatory basis. Suing government officials and politicians randomly will neither help in achieving developmental goals nor will it ensure any accountability. Similarly, compulsory voting does not improve the accountability of voters. Compulsory voting will also not ensure smarter policies or smarter politicians. Anything that is compulsory is done half-heartedly. Half-hearted efforts cannot fix the larger problems of democracy.

There is a political promise of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’, which was very well received by the voters. Traditionally in India, we do not know what ‘minimum government’ means and the government has always assumed a large role without worrying about the delivery of any promises. Minimum government essentially means minimum interferences in our private life and respecting our choices. Maximum governance is about high accountability and transparency. Compulsory voting in its very spirit goes against not only this political promise of ‘minimum government’ but also the article 21 of the Constitution about protection of personal liberty. Paraphrasing David Brin, ‘when it comes to privacy and accountability, politicians always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else’. Political accountability strengthens democracy more than compulsory voting.

(10th August, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

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