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Arrest the drift, make voting compulsory

First the facts, as reported by the media: just about half the electorate turned up at polling stations to vote in Thursday's elections to municipal bodies in 10 cities, including Mumbai, across Maharashtra. Official estimates show 54 per cent statewide polling, which means nearly half the electorate, comprising 2.02 crore voters, stayed home.

Predictably, the lowest turnout was recorded in Mumbai where 44.64 per cent of the city's 1.02 crore registered voters made the effort to exercise their choice of who should control BMC, the richest civic body in the country which presides over the future of a city teeming with millions and cramped with real estate that commands some of the highest prices in the world.

This is not the first time that Mumbaikars, who are otherwise known to nurse strong opinions, including political views, have displayed utter contempt for the ballot box. It would appear that the state government's decision to declare Thursday a public holiday has proved to be an incentive to either stay at home or leave the city for an extended weekend vacation.

That does not mean more people would have voted had the Government not declared a holiday. They would have still steered clear of polling stations and cited lack of time to fulfil their duty as citizens by exercising their right to vote.

Mumbaikars, however, could claim in their defence that almost as many people voted in Thursday's poll as in the previous three BMC elections when polling ranged between 42 and 46 per cent. Statistically, there has been no increase in polling between 2007 and 2012. But numerically the turnout would be higher since the number of voters has increased over the past five years.

It could also be said that compared to the other cities where elections were held on Thursday, Mumbai's turnout has not been too bad. Thane saw 52 per cent turnout, Ulhasnagar 43 per cent, Nashik 58 per cent, Pune 53 per cent, Pimpri-Chinchwad 56 per cent, Solapur 58 per cent, Akola 57 per cent, Nagpur 55 per cent and Amravati 58 per cent. Mumbaikars can seek comfort in the fact that their city is ahead of Ulhasnagar.

So, what explains the low voter turnout in Mumbai? From my perch in New Delhi, I wouldn't dare hazard a guess. But surely it would be in order to raise some questions whose answers would have larger implications. First, does the low voter turnout reflect indifference towards something as fundamental as local self-governance? Is that indifference a manifestation of the malaise that afflicts voters in most metropolitan cities?

Second, are the urban elite fast veering round to the view that no purpose is served by voting for, and electing, the usual suspects? If true, it would suggest that Anna Hazare has succeeded in his mission of demonising politicians.

The question, however, does not provide the answer to another question that has often been posed to Anna and his army of the righteous: If not politicians, then who? Third, while an election, irrespective of voter turnout, is a legitimate process of electing a body with executive and legislative authority so long as it is held in a free and fair manner, is it morally right for the victor in a poll in which less than 50 per cent of the people vote to claim victory?

Look at it this way. Say in a particular constituency there are 100 voters. Of them, only 46 cast their votes in a contest with three, or maybe four, serious contenders. In a three-way contest, the winning candidate could pip his competitors at the post with 17 votes; in a four-way contest, with 12 votes. So, the democratically elected representative would actually represent less than a fifth of the constituents. Is that the democracy we claim to be proud of?

It's easy to pass the buck and blame politicians for the sorry spectacle that was witnessed in Mumbai on Thursday. But that is not going to solve any problem, nor will it make the system of governance any better, not the least because the elected representatives, with a low threshold of accountability, will have no motivation to either perform or excel.

This drift has to be arrested before elections are reduced to a farce because the people are loath to fulfil their obligation as citizens. To incentivise voting is akin to the state bribing the people. It must stop. Instead, voting should be made compulsory. That's an option worth exploring, provided there are accompanying stiff disincentives for staying at home on polling day.

-- The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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