As Mumbaikars woke up on Tuesday, ready to vote for a new municipal corporation, they were greeted with a novel warning. An advertisement in the newspapers threatened them with dire consequences if they did not go out and exercise their franchise.

Put out by a private body, the “Election Committee of India” – not to be confused with the Election Commission of India – the advertisement raised some hackles on social media. Even as the threats contained within the ad were rhetorical, it acted as a reminder of how the idea of compulsory voting is taking root amongst certain circles in India.

Compulsory voting exists in 22 countries across the world. It was also put into practice in India, with the state of Gujarat making voting mandatory in local body polls (a move now in limbo, with the courts staying the move for now).

Authoritarian idea

That Gujarat – a state known for a weak civil society and a recent history of authoritarian government – was the first state to move towards mandatory voting is unsurprising. Compulsory voting is autocratic and arbitrary.

Democracy is all about choice – an idea which gives common people the ability to select their rulers. It is thus ironic that the primary instrument of democracy – elections – will itself be an exercise in coercion.

In India, this coercion takes on an even darker shade. India’s voters are largely poor and disadvantaged. For them to be forced into spending a day at the voting booth is an idea that is inherently illiberal. Can a daily wage labourer afford to miss a day’s work just because some politician decrees it? And if the state forces everyone to vote, will it also compensate people for the lost day of work?

More deeply, the very idea hits at the root of free speech in India. Choosing not to speak is itself an exercise of free speech. Boycotting the vote might itself serve as a strong protest. This has been seen in states like Jammu and Kashmir, where widespread interference from New Delhi resulted in the installation of unrepresentative governments.

A democracy which distrusts its people?

The feasibility of the idea also needs to be taken in a country of India’s size and population. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, for example, the voter turnout was 66%. While this is a good figure compared to other democracies, it still means 28 crore Indians who were eligible to vote chose not to. For compulsory voting to be truly effective, it will have to involve some form of punishment. How will the Indian state – which can’t pull of even the most basic tasks such as providing basic education and health – penalise 28 crore people? The enormity of the exercise will end up paralysing the administration – hardly a desirable outcome.

The thinking that drives compulsory voting also results in fiascos like the Haryana Panchayati Raj (Amendment) Act, 2015 which disqualified illiterate people from standing for elections. In both cases, there is a distrust of people as independent agents and attempts to fetter their choices. To make illegal a person’s choice to not vote or to assume that educations makes for good leaders is a rather pernicious form of elitism, completely unsuited to the ethos of a mass democracy.