The Bihari versus the bahari

The significant migrant population from Bihar could affect the poll outcome if many choose to return to vote.

October 28, 2015 12:08 am | Updated March 28, 2016 07:02 pm IST

Notwithstanding the political rhetoric of bihari versus bahari (outsider), many commentators have suggested that Bihar’s migrant population, living and working in other parts of the country, may play a crucial role in determining the final outcome of the ongoing State Assembly elections. The >State has the highest net migration rate (out-migration minus in-migration) in the country and in the last two decades the out-migration has increased manifold. The most recent data on migration patterns in India from the 64th round of National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) conducted in 2007-08 puts the net migration rate per 1000 persons in Bihar at the highest in the country (- 56) followed by Kerala (-44) and Uttar Pradesh (- 31).

The pre-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Bihar in the last week of September reflects this with approximately half the sample reporting that they had at least one member of the household living outside the State. Also, as the NSSO data suggests, the size of this emigrant population in absolute numbers is huge. Thus, its effect on the final election outcome — which most pollsters and political analysts have been describing as “too close to call” — could be very large. In the 2010 Assembly elections, the average winning margin was 15,000 votes, and approximately 50 seats were decided by a difference of less than 5,000 votes. And if one does the math using the migration data from the NSSO and the electorate size of this election, then the average winning margin of the 2010 elections and average migrant population per assembly constituency turns out to be roughly the same.

How much impact would the migrant population have on the final tally? In our opinion, the overall effect of the migrant population in the final instance would be determined by four inter-related factors. First, how many of these migrants will return to vote. Second, do these returnees overwhelmingly belong to certain communities and a certain economic class? Third, do they vote along with other members of their household or are their voting decisions independent? And finally, do migrants influence the voting decisions of their family members even when they are not visiting their native places during elections?

However, an important caveat is in order before we delve into exploring the possible effect of the migrant voters. As there are no reliable estimates that suggest otherwise, we have assumed that a large proportion of the migrant population is registered as voters in Bihar.

Women’s turnout puzzle?

The assembly constituencies where the polling took place on October 12 and 16 saw an increase of approximately five percentage points in voter turnout when compared to the 2010 elections. More significantly, the turnout among women was once again much higher. What explains this higher rate of turnout among women ? Some have suggested that women are increasingly participating in the political arena thanks to relatively greater economic independence and political empowerment. Other analysts, however, argue that it is entirely plausible that the turnout differences are largely a result of differential rates of migration as approximately four of every five migrants from Bihar is a male.

While it is difficult to resolve this debate in the absence of more fine-grained data, it appears that the turnout difference between men and women is due to an increase in turnout by women and that is independent of migration, at least partly. There could be other reasons as well such as the decline in incidents of violence at polling booths, or the proximity of polling stations.

Migrants as decision makers Many studies have pointed out that the political socialisation of migrants is different from other members of their family, and in many cases, as the sole earning members, their guidance is sought even in matters related to voting. Migrants look beyond local factors while making political decisions. For example, the pre-poll data suggests that households with at least one member living outside the State are more likely to consider the performance of the Central government than State government even during State elections. They are also more likely to own a mobile handset, a television, and have higher media exposure. Thus, these migrants can influence the voting decisions of their family members even without being physically present.

The pre-poll survey indicates that the migrant factor makes a difference to a respondent’s voting choices. In the survey, the NDA had seven percentage point lead over the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) among non out-migrant households, which gets reduced to just one percentage point among the out-migrant households. The data presented in the graphic shows that this pattern is visible across all economic classes. While the NDA had a lead of five percentage points over the Grand Alliance among poor households with no member living outside Bihar, the vote share of the two alliances is almost same among poor households with at least one out-migrant member. Similarly, the NDA trails the Mahagathbandhan by nine percentage points among the lower middle class out-migrant households and by five percentage points among households in similar economic condition but no family members living outside the State. Even among the upper middle class households, where the NDA usually does well, the migrant factor makes a difference, with the NDA leading the Grand Alliance by 18 percentage points among non out-migrant households while the gap declines to 11 percentage points among out-migrant households.

Thus, the turnout of the migrant population and their family members could change the electoral equations in many parts of Bihar. Many analysts with special interest in Bihar politics have pointed out that the polling dates this time (especially phase 3 onwards) overlap with the holiday season and a significant number of migrants return to home during October-November every year. While the number of returnees may not be enough to close the gender gap in voter turnout, it can definitely influence the election results.

Our knowledge about how migrant populations participate in the political arena is very limited. The sooner we make systematic efforts to collect data on this, the better we will understand the changing nature of electoral democracy in increasingly urbanising India.

(Rahul Verma is with Lokniti-CSDS and the Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley. Shreyas Sardesai is with Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi.)

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