Claiming to increase voter awareness and ensure a high turnout for the upcoming Gujarat Assembly election, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), Gujarat, has initiated the signing of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with several organisations in the State, a move that has led to protests and controversy. A first in the history of the State, the agreements extract commitments from bodies such as the Gujarat High Court Advocates Association, the Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI), civil society groups, a few unions, and several social work organisations.
Lawyers, activists, and political observers said that the move, while legal and reportedly harmless, could have far-reaching consequences. Those who signed the MoUs said that voters need to understand their fundamental duties, one of which is to exercise their mandate. Others have questioned the motive and agenda behind the agreement, saying that it has the potential to influence voters on who to vote for.
Speaking to Frontline, P. Bharathi, CEO, Gujarat, said that 15 MoUs had been signed with the aim of following Election Commission of India (ECI) guidelines and increasing participation in the electoral process. She said: “The voter turnout in Gujarat is low in urban areas. Our goal is to encourage people to come out and vote. In order to be a robust democracy, we need to think of ways to make people understand the importance of their vote.”
Bharathi said that approaching associations such as the GCCI helped in efficiently reaching out to a large number of voters. The chamber has over 200 trade and industry associations along with 4,000 direct members. An agreement to increase voting awareness would reach over 1,000 companies, resulting in tens of thousands of people in the workforce understanding the importance of casting their vote.
The first page of the MoU says that the CEO’s office and its functionaries across the State are “working diligently towards education, awareness, and education of citizens for increased electoral participation” through the ECI’s flagship programme, SVEEP (Systematic Voters Electoral Education Programme). With the objective of expanding the programme, the CEO “plans to build strategic partnerships with organisations that can support these initiatives and help in reaching out to different citizens groups for awareness and motivation through their activities and services”.
The MoU also says that the electoral office will provide support to the signatories by giving them material on voting to distribute among employees. The companies/associations are expected to follow rules such as giving time off to vote. Additionally, they need to appoint a nodal officer to oversee the exercise of awareness and monitor workers on voting day.
A business person based in Baroda, who signed the MoU but chose to remain unnamed, said that apart from big corporates, the State has a significant number of small and medium-scale industrial units. He added: “I think the move to sign [an agreement] with GCCI is genius as a political strategy. However, we are still a democracy. Nobody can force us to vote. What if a worker does not vote? Will there be some penalty? Besides, the law says the voter is allowed a day off. The MoU says they can go for a few hours but need to report back. These are questionable points.”
Prithviraj Jadeja, a lawyer and vice president of the Gujarat High Court Advocates Association (GHAA), another signatory to the MoU, said: “As an association we felt that unless we come out and vote we will not get a good government or representation. Therefore, we thought it is our moral responsibility to spread awareness about voting. If the election commission is initiating a programme, we felt we should support it. The MoU is a non-committal one. It is just an agreement with good intentions.” Jadeja added that the GHAA has 4,000-5,000 members. “If our members take the initiative to educate people, the reach would be huge.”
The CEO did not reveal the names of the organisations that have signed up for the initiative. Sources said that the so-called “social work groups” are affiliated with the ruling BJP government. A member of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Gujarat said: “The ruling party is anxious about the elections. This move is part of the strategy.”
Pankti Jog, the Gujarat representative of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), said that the ADR believes the document is legal but that the CEO cannot legally “name or shame” people who do not vote, as media reports have said.
Jog added: “A red flag is appointing a nodal officer. Is that person legally allowed to take the names of those who did not vote? Our bigger concern is when the Chief Election Commissioner held a press conference to announce the MoU initiative, he said this idea came after a meeting with political parties. We want to know which parties and who attended this meeting.” Jog added: “It is understood that business and corporate houses usually support the ruling government. Signing with the chambers of commerce is clever. The question is who else have they signed up.”
Meanwhile, the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have strongly objected to the move. Describing the signing of MoUs as “outrageous”, the CPI (M) said that it was a move to name and shame those who did not vote. Voting could not be coerced, it said.
The CPI (M) recalled that in 2015 the then Union Minister for Law and Justice had told the Supreme Court that if compulsory voting was introduced, it would create an undemocratic environment in the country. Also, the Law Commission in one of its reports had stated that the right to vote cannot be imposed as a fundamental duty.
Corporate supervision envisaged in the signing of the MoUs makes a mockery of the concept of secret ballot, apart from making workers vulnerable to intimidation and vindictive action, it said.
One the largest Central unions, the CITU also took objection to the move. It said that this was a “clear reflection” of the ECI’s over-reach, going much beyond its mandate. The CITU said that it not only gave the “employers’ class another handle to coerce and harass working people” but paved the way to impose undue pressure, manipulate, or influence voters in order to favor the ruling dispensation.