Why do poor people in rural areas vote when they know the whole system is against them? JEAN DRÈZE talks to some voters and observes the voting process during the recent Assembly elections in Latehar district, Jharkhand, and comes away with some pointers...

Latehar district in Jharkhand is one of India's so-called “Maoist-infested” areas, where people are said to live at the mercy of Naxalite terrorists. On the surface, it is quite peaceful. I have never felt unsafe when I moved about rural areas of Latehar over the years. But the stillness is deceptive. Over time, one learns to feel the heavy yoke of structural violence under which people live: economic exploitation, social discrimination, police repression, and so on. Most of the time, the violence does not surface, because people learn to stay in their place. But if they step out of line, there is swift repression: beatings, arrests, false cases, even killings if need be. Maoism is the least of people's fears. But they live in dread of the police, the court, the forest officer, the “security forces”, and other arms of the State.

I was curious to see how voting takes place in these areas, so I spent a day in Latehar on October 18, the last day of the Assembly elections in Jharkhand. I went around half a dozen villages and booths of Manika Block, with two accredited observers.

Election day was an occasion of sorts in the area. People headed for the booths in large numbers. The voter turnout rate was around 60 per cent, a respectable figure by international standards. Most people were quite disciplined, and queued patiently at the booths.

Massive security arrangements were in place. On the main road to Daltonganj, for miles on end, there was an army jawanin full battle gear every 20 metres or so. In the interior villages, every booth was heavily guarded. But people were moving about in groups, so they were not afraid of the “forces”. Nor did we see any sign of the army or police interfering with the election process.

Procedures observed

I was impressed with the administrative preparations that had been made. Voter ID cards (with photograph) had been distributed in advance, and reams of matching identity slips were ready at each booth. The prescribed procedures seemed to be observed. Voters were allowed one at a time into the booth, and the anonymity of their vote was respected. We did not witness any incident of rowdiness or disruptive behaviour.

However, we did observe some serious irregularities. For instance, at one booth (Rankikalan, Booth No. 69) a BJP activist was trying to influence voters before they entered the booth, under the guise of helping them. And we found no active booth after 2 p.m., even though the official timings stretched to 3 p.m. The departing officials claimed that voting was “over”, but what about people's right to vote after 2 p.m. if they so wish? On my way back to Daltonganj, I also met a young man who claimed that when he reached the polling booth, he was told that someone had already voted under his name. This was an isolated but disturbing sign of the fact that the system may not be as fool-proof as it looks. Having said this, considering that this is one of India's most troubled areas, in a state where all semblance of a functioning administration has virtually disappeared, the entire operation looked reasonably credible.

So much for the good news. On a less cheerful note, most people's vote seemed to be little more than a shot in the dark. At each booth, I asked a few men and women who they had voted for and why. Most of them were quite happy to tell me who they had voted for, but found it difficult to explain why. “Someone told me to vote for the lantern, so I voted for the lantern”, “I always vote for the hand”, and “this candidate is from our area” are some examples of their responses.

Focus on personalities

Most of the respondents were unable to relate the symbols to political parties. They know about the flower, the lantern, the banana, and so on (there were about 20 different symbols on the machine), but ask them which party the lantern stands for and you are unlikely to get the correct answer. I also noted with interest that the voting machines don't mention any political parties. Against each symbol is the name of the candidate, and nothing more. When most people are unable to relate symbols to parties, as seemed to be the case in Latehar, this arrangement reinforces the focus on personalities at the expense of issues.

In larger villages on the main road, the situation was a little different. There, the mainstream parties had conducted intensive campaigns, and people's education levels were also higher. Some voters there refused to tell me who they had voted for, arguing — quite rightly — that it was a private matter. Others did tell me, and were able to associate symbols with parties. Even there, however, there was no evidence of specific parties being identified with specific issues.

To understand how poor people vote in these areas, we must remember that most of them live in a very hostile environment where the whole system (the contractor, the landlord, the police, the BDO) is against them. In this system, what people need is a “strong man” who can help them to get things done and come to their rescue in times of trouble. It may not matter much if that man (or woman) is corrupt, or communal, or an opportunist. And it certainly does not matter much that he or she belongs to the privileged classes. On the contrary, a strong man, by definition, must be rich and powerful.

So how do people pick their preferred “strong man”? It's hard to guess, based on a single day of observation. Some voters may identify with the caste or community of a particular candidate, or with the fact that she is “from our area” as one respondent told me. Some were said to have been given liquor or money to vote for a particular symbol. Some may have gone by rumours that so-and-so was the person or symbol to vote for. And quite likely, many others just followed the advice of someone who matters. It is these influential middlemen, more than the voters themselves, who are wooed by the political parties.

A different candidate

All this helps to explain why Jitendra, a “different” candidate who talks about people's rights and social justice, had a sad face on October 18. Jitendra looks much like any other villager of the area, and certainly not like an MLA or future MLA (no special outfit, no gizmos, no bodyguards). He took a leading role in a successful struggle against forced displacement in the area, and thought that this would give him a good chance in the Assembly elections. Around his own village, Jitendra had a lot of support, and many people were voting for the banana. But beyond that, he didn't' seem to count for much. His defeat was assured.

At the end of the day, I wondered why people vote at all. Knowing that their own vote makes no difference, and that the whole system is against them anyway, why do they bother? One answer is that they clutch to the little they have — the faint hope that they can do something to bring change into their circumstances. There are other answers too. To some extent, it may be a form of “herd behaviour”. Voting is also a social event of sorts — a distraction that brings fleeting excitement in people's monotonous lives.

Yet another answer is that people think of voting as a collective rather than an individual act. When they vote, they feel part of a collective effort to back a particular candidate. This point was vividly conveyed to me last year by a young man in Rewa (Madhya Pradesh), who said: “had I voted for the flower while others in my village voted for the hand, my vote would have been wasted”.

I believe that there is some truth in all these answers. And in a sense, we don't really need an “explanation”: voting just requires the sort of minimal public-spiritedness that is readily found in most societies (with some pathological exceptions, such as the United States where the odd act of voting is confined to a small minority).

In the evening I left for Ranchi by train from Daltonganj. Hordes of loutish jawanswere crowding the platform, waiting for the same train. The brief moment when they had a specific duty, and strict orders to behave themselves, seemed to be over. Seeing this, my friend Shailendra, who was due to board the same train, decided to catch the morning bus instead. I smiled at this panic reaction, but understood it better when I saw the behaviour of the jawanson the train. No wonder poor people live in fear of the security forces. One of the jawanstold me apologetically, “this is India”. I replied “no my friend, this is the army”.

Professor Jean Drèze is now with the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.