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The truth about theories on turnout

There is no steady decline in voter turnout or increase in political apathy. The fact is we are in the midst of a ‘participatory upsurge,’ says Yogendra Yadav

Routine reporting about election turnout conceals a larger truth about political participation in contemporary India. As we enter the first week of polling, it is not difficult to anticipate the kind of reports we are likely to get: those with lots of colour but little substance, with statistics that do not reveal the big picture, and assumptions that the political apathy in the metros holds good for the rest of the country.

Questions will be asked about ‘declining’ turnout on the presumption that it is equivalent to a low level of political participation. Instant forecasts will be made that link any rise in turnout with the fate of the incumbent government; the assumption being that a higher turnout reflects voter anger.

The trouble is the evidence simply does not support these popular beliefs and assumptions. What reports based on these fail to recognise is that we are in the midst of a democratic upsurge, of the kind that could become a model in the history of democracy.

Let us first demolish the view that election turnout is linked to electoral outcome. This belief dates back probably to the first two instances of anti-incumbency in the country. The general elections of 1967 and 1977 which experienced anti-Congress waves, also witnessed jumps in the turnout. But this was also true of 1984, when the wave was in favour of the Congress or Rajiv Gandhi.

Elections over the last two decades do not reveal any pattern, but the belief has persisted. The Lok Sabha election of 1998 witnessed the highest turnout in the last two decades, but there was no wave for or against the incumbent. The last five years witnessed 31 Assembly polls. Of these, 14 State elections recorded an increase of more than two points over previous elections, but only six resulted in the defeat of an incumbent government. If anything, the chances of the incumbent government losing were higher when the turnout was about the same as the last time or had fallen.

Now to address the widely held misconception that Indians are indifferent to voting in particular and politics in general. If we examine turnout levels in Lok Sabha elections from a global perspective, India is among the lower middle category. The global average of turnouts among electoral democracies in the post-war period is about 65 per cent. At 57 per cent, India is way behind the established democracies in Western Europe, but substantially ahead of the U.S. and most of South America.

If we assume spurious names (of those dead, migrated or simply non-existent) make up 10 per cent of our electoral rolls, the real turnout figures would be at least five per cent higher. Now that the Election Commission has taken steps to prune the electoral rolls, there should be an improvement in the voter turnout this time, an increase that will put India close to the global average.

There is no steady decline in voter turnout in India as there is in most established democracies of the global north. The truth is that it has remained stable or has gone up in a time when everyone complains about political apathy.

Shift the focus to the States, which have been the principal arena of political contestation, and the turnout has actually increased over the last two decades. On an average, Assembly elections record a turnout of around 70 per cent. We do not have all India averages of turnout for panchayat and municipality elections. But the limited data suggests that the turnout at the local level is upwards of 75 per cent. That stands in sharp contrast to voting patterns in Europe and the U.S., where turnout in local elections is abysmally low.

The European and North American experience led to the assumption that political participation was a function of social privilege. If you are rich, well-educated and belong to the majority community, then you are likely to vote more and participate more in political activity.

Voting pattern

The evidence from India suggests a very different pattern. The poor vote more than the rich, especially in urban areas. For the last four general elections, Dalits have voted more than upper caste Hindus. Ever since 1977, rural areas have recorded higher turnout than the cities.

There is still a gap between men and women, as there is between adivasis and the rest, but the gap is much narrower than before. The data on Muslim turnout is more erratic; with the exception of 2004, their turnout has been at the same level as the rest of the population.

Electoral democracy is not the preserve of the rich and well heeled. Those who are socially disadvantaged value their status as citizens and have learnt to use the vote as a weapon of the weak. This ‘participatory upsurge’ from below has defined the character of Indian democracy in the last two decades or so. The inability of the national parties to anticipate and accommodate this upsurge has led to the rise of regional political parties and the opening up of political choices. This has also resulted in a substantial change in the social profile of our political elite, as more and more of our political leaders and representatives come from communities that were excluded from political power.

This upsurge has changed the language of politics and has the potential of altering the very nature of the political agenda. However, there were signs of a slowing down of this upsurge in the last Lok Sabha election. As we begin grappling with the figures on turnout this week and indulge in our pet theories of who is going receive the electoral dividend from a higher or lower turnout, let us not lose sight of a big question: do we see signs of an ongoing democratic upsurge? Or has it been halted? Or tamed? We are not dealing with the future of parties and governments, but the very future of our democracy.

[ Yogendra Yadav is a Senior Fellow at the CSDS and the Editor of Samayik Varta]

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