Ahmedabad, Dec.19: Gujarat Saturday became the first state in India to make voting compulsory in all local body elections, with Chief Minister Narendra Modi calling it a "move to strengthen democracy".
Amid opposition from the Congress, the assembly passed the Gujarat Local Authorities Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2009. It makes voting compulsory in elections to all seven municipal corporations, 159 municipalities, 26 district panchayats, 223 taluka panchayats and in 13,713 village panchayats of the state.
Piloting the bill, Urban Development Minister Nitin Patel said it was aimed at making democracy more representative and meaningful. Terming the bill "an epochal move", Modi said the educated and the intellectual class who often stay away from taking part in grassroots democracy would now have to do so.
"It was shocking to see that the large mass of people who had collected to light candles in the aftermath of 26/11 attacks in Mumbai did not come out to vote with the same enthusiasm," he said. "Our decision seeks to overturn such a situation to ensure that there is maximum participation of people in (elections)."
According to the new law, all registered voters in Gujarat will be required to vote. Those absent will be asked to submit a valid reason with proof within a month.
The bill empowers the election officer to declare people who do not vote as defaulter voters. They shall have an opportunity to present their case within a month.
Exemption will be granted on account of illness, absence from the country or state on polling day and for any other reason prescribed by the state. Modi said he hoped that other states as well as the country as a whole would follow suit. He contended that making voting compulsory would go a long way in reducing corruption in the electoral process.
"It has been a matter of concern for all of us and Gujarat has taken the initiative to show the way. With the voters going in large numbers to exercise their franchise, the role of black money is sure to be reduced anddemocracy will be the ultimate victor," he added.
"It is a matter of discipline. Should an individual not be apportioning half an hour just once in years to the state? Is that asking for too much?"Modi noted that 32 countries had made voting compulsory, leading to the voting percentages shooting up from 45 to over 90 percent.
"How do you justify a situation wherein 50 percent vote and with a mere 26 percent, people rule for years while an overwhelming 70 percent remains unrepresented and without any say? The situation needs to be changed."
Congress legislature party leader Shaktisinh Gohil opposed the bill saying it was "impractical" and "designed with political motives".