Dominating the visual electoral landscape of Uttar Pradesh are the Election Commission's enormous billboards exhorting citizens to cast their votes, not the flags, banners and posters of political parties. Even the stone elephants and statues in Chief Minister Mayawati's Dalit parks are shrouded in pink polythene, now burnt white by the sun.
If in Lucknow, the Commission's message to voters may be more sophisticated, “Make your vote count,” in the western district of Bulandshahr, it's a more direct appeal of asking people simply to vote.
A major feature in the ongoing elections in the State has been the Commission's enormous effort to get voters out on the polling day through its Systematic Voters' Education and Electoral Participation programme, which it likes to describe as the “SVEEP effect.”
The Commission has enrolled more than a crore new voters, and it is estimated that about 40 per cent of those punching the buttons on the EVMs are less than 40 years of age.
Are these the reasons for the increased voter turnout or do we need to look at more than the obvious? What does it spell for political parties in the fray? Are the new voters apolitical, unaffected by the imperatives of identity politics, concerned only with the image of the candidate and the desire for what is glibly referred to as “development”?
In Bulandshahr's district court, lawyer Narendra Nagar says: “Don't get too carried away by the fact that the voting so far has been around 60 per cent and that it represents an increase of 14 per cent from 2007: the fact is, in 2002, the voting percentage was about 54 per cent, in 1996, almost 56 per cent, and in 1993, 57 per cent.”
In short, Mr. Nagar's thesis is that it's not merely an enhanced awareness among citizens about their political rights that has pushed up the voting percentage; there is also a political reason for these figures.
In 2007, he recalls, the public mood was to rid the State of Mulayam Singh and the strong-arm tactics of his followers and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) looked like the only party that could dislodge his Samajwadi Party (SP).
But while the BSP's core voters turned up in large numbers that year to punch on the elephant symbol, the upper castes, particularly the Brahmins, who created the mahaul (atmosphere) for a regime change, he stresses, were not that enthusiastic about casting their own votes, resulting in a slump in the polling figures. Indeed, aware of upper caste antipathy, the BSP had created a slogan at the time, especially for the upper castes: Pathar rakho chati par, mohor lagaon hathi paro (Turn your heart to stone and vote for the elephant).
In 2012, therefore, the enhanced figures — ranging from 57 per cent to 63 per cent in six of the seven phases — suggest that a large chunk of new voters are voting for a change of government, as Ms Mayawati's core voters remain intact.
Police sources suggest that most new voters have largely voted for either the SP or the BJP. In demographic terms, these are either the youth voting for their futures; in caste terms, the upper castes who want to escape from the clutches of Dalit power.
Dalit youth may still rest their hopes on Ms. Mayawati continuing in power, but the OBC and upper castes among the young are equally anchored in their caste groupings, thanks to reservation becoming an issue in these elections. “For the young,” says an IPS officer serving in a western district, “voting preferences are allied to employment prospects.”
For instance, for Hindu OBCs, the fact that an attempt is being made to cut into their votes through a sub-quota for religious minorities, has seen a section gravitating towards the BJP, the only party which has openly and vigorously opposed the move.
But will the enhanced voting produce a majority or a fractured verdict? If one is to go by past figures, the only two elections in the last 21 years to produce a conclusive result, 1991 and 2007, also saw the lowest polling: 48.51 per cent and 45.9 per cent respectively. A higher voter turnout suggests a greater jostling for power among competing groups — and a strong possibility of no party achieving a simple majority.
Meanwhile, in rural areas, a spot survey among women voters in the districts of Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Bijnor and Bulandshahr demonstrated that voting is virtually an act of faith, whether they are Jaatavs (Dalits), Muslims, Sainis (a prosperous OBC group that grows vegetables), Jaats or Rajputs. Ham na apna vote cancel karein, they said, there is no question of allowing our votes to be “cancelled.” But why do they vote at all? Looking astonished, most of them gave a variation of this answer: “If we don't vote, no one will win and no one will lose. Every vote counts.”
Given that at least two thirds of the women I spoke to were illiterate or semi-literate, their grasp of their democratic rights should surely shame the urban educated who still vote in smaller numbers. They could be the Commission's new propangadists.