Till recently, a spurt in voter turnout was considered as expression of voters’ emotions, associated either with anti-incumbency or an overwhelming endorsement for the incumbent in extreme circumstances. But this causality may not be necessarily true in the current election, where voter turnout is at a record high.
If we look at the history of voter turnout since 1971 parliamentary election, change in voter turnout between two elections has mostly been less that five percentage points, except on two occasions, in 1977 and 1984. The 5.5 percentage points increase in voter turnout between 1971 to 1977 could be attributed to the anger against the 1975 Emergency, while seven percentage points increase between 1980 to 1984 was largely considered as sympathy for the Congress party after the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
Similarly, there was a jump of five percentage points between 1996 to 1998, which could be due to the passions associated with the campaign to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had polled 25.6% vote, five percentage points more than the vote share it got in 1996.
However, recent assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have experienced unprecedented voter turnout of 75%, 72% and 77%, respectively. In two states, the incumbent regime was re-elected while in one the vote was for change.
Part of the reason for the increase in voter turnout could be attributed to the Election Commission revising the electoral rolls and engaging in outreach. In other words, high voter turnout in recent polls cannot be viewed as a vote of anti- or pro-incumbency. Instead, it is due to a combination of factors and hence more complex.
One argument is that the average increase of about 10 percentage points in voting observed in the seven p
However, this claim doesn’t stack up against the facts if we analyse the correlation between the proportion of Muslim population gleaned from the Census and the voter turnout in four phases polled so far in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
For instance, though Muslims represent the largest segment of electorate (31%) in second phase in Uttar Pradesh, the increase in voter turnout in this phase was just eight percentage points. In the third phase where Muslims account for only 9.1% of the population, the increase in voter turnout is 13.5 percentage points.
Similarly in Bihar, in the third phase, Muslims account for 30.9% of the population but increase in voter turnout was the least at eight percentage points, while the second phase registered highest increase in voter turnout of 14.7 percentage points, though the share of the Muslim population is 7.4%.
The turnout in both the states in 2004 as well as 2009 was the highest in the phases with the largest concentration of Muslims. In other words, the Muslim turnout is already at near saturation levels and the increase would be made up of non-Muslims.
Take the case of 11 constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh that went to polls in the second phase. This area has more than 30% Muslim population but the BJP in alliance with the Rashtriya Lok Dal was leader in 2009, winning a vote share of 26% voted followed by Samajwadi Party (24.4%), Bahujan Samaj Party (23.2%) and Congress (19.3%) in a relatively more secular political environment. In 2014, the voter turnout in this area is 62% in a communally polarized environment. In 2009, it recorded a turnout of 54% compared with the state average of 48%.
In the final analysis, it is clear that the simple causality assumed previously would not necessarily hold true in this election. We will just have to wait for 16 May to draw our conclusions.
Devendra Kumar is a psephologist and director of Research and Development Initiative.