Bangalore: In 2007, India redefined constituencies across states on the basis of new population data. Termed delimitation, this exercise gave cities, where more people live, more representation both in state assemblies and Parliament. However,data from one of the first elections held after this redefinition show that urban voters continue to be apathetic to elections and that, if anything, their indifference may have only increased.
On 10 May, in the first phase of elections to the Karnataka assembly (the second phase will be held tomorrow and the third phase on 22 May), voter turnout in Bangalore city was 44%, the lowest in the past five elections. Still worse, this number has declined steadily, from 60% in 1994 to 55.20% in 1999 to 52.16% in 2004. In the eight part-rural constituencies surrounding the city, the figure was 78%.
Overall, voter turnout in Karnataka, where elections for 89 of 224 constituencies were held on 10 May, was 66%, marginally higher than the turnout of 65% (for all constituencies) in the previous assembly elections in 2004.
Experts say the low voter turnout in the city reflects an increasing trend across India, where the urban middle class and rich do not vote because they feel an election does not affect their daily lives.
“The middle class has got into a ghetto,” author and historian Ramachandra Guha told a recent press conference of Election Watch Karnataka, a committee of observers set up by a non-governmental organization, Association for Democratic Reforms.
Guha, a member of the committee, said while Dalits (people from the most backward classes) and Adivasis (tribals) vote in large numbers, themiddle class has become apathetic.
“It’s a phenomenon we are seeing across the country,” added Sandeep Shastri, a Bangalore-based political analyst.
“The urban rich have other systems by which they can get things done, though it’s not necessarily by bribing (representatives),” says Rajiv Bhargava, head of the Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies. For instance, telephone and gas connectionsare freely available, and do not require the intervention of a well-connected local politician.
However, some experts also point to errors in voting lists that lead to misleading conclusions about voter turnout. Shastri said voting lists in urban areas usually have twice as many errors as those in rural ones.
Large-scale migration and intra-city movement increase the number of errors in voting lists in urban areas. Shastri added, however, that the poor turnout has more to do with the fact that “the middle class also having its own way of influencing power.”
Ramesh Ramanathan, Mint columnist and the founder of a citizen’s movement Janaagraha, however, contested the low voter-turnout numbers. “I don’t believe people were apathetic. There genuinely was a larger desire to vote this time and there has been a larger turnout.”
According to Ramanathan, the problem lies in the way voting percentages are managed. “In any single polling booth, 40-45% of names need to be deleted because people have either died or moved away,” Ramanathan said. Instances of “proxy” voting, or cheating, have come down dramatically in this election because of a vigilant Election Commission, he added.
Politicians say the commission’s strict stance on campaigning played a negative role. “The Election Commission’s restrictions on campaigning this year and the timing of election day—coinciding with holidays—have contributed to the low turnout,” said K. Chandrashekar, a Congress party candidate from Bangalore’sBasavanagudi constituency and a former mayor of the city.
Political parties are used to low voter turnout in Bangalore—even municipal elections here see polling of between 35% and 40%.
This time around, say experts, the situation may have been made worse by the absence of charismatic candidates.
“There is a different kind of mobilization in rural areas where people know each other. It’s not so in cities,” said Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.
Even in urban areas, voting percentages from slums are usually high, added Satyanarayana Sangita, head of the centre for political institutions, governance and development at the Bangalore-based Institute of Social and Economic Change. He says a reason people abstain from voting in urban areas is because of higher literacy levels that make them cynical about promises made by politicians.
“A very large part of the middle class in cities has enough money to get along with their lives. They do not depend on anybody for it and that explains why they don’t care,” Bhargava said, adding that it is only the poor who really have a stake in elections.
In the previous state elections in 2004, parties such as Janata Dal (Secular) and Bharatiya Janata Party had chastised the Congress for what they said was its excessive focus on the city and had vowed to look more at rural issues.
This time round, all political parties sang a different tune. Delimitation had increased the number of seats in the city to 28 from 16. Bangalore now accounts for 12.5% of the seats in the 224-member assembly, up from 7% earlier.
Sensing the city would play a decisive role in the electoral sweepstakes, political parties scrambled on to the city development bandwagon, promising citizens an overhaul of Bangalore’s crumbling infrastructure. The city accounted for nearly one-third of India’s software exports of $40 billion (Rs1.7 trillion) in 2007-08.
While the Congress party said it would implement a Rs50,000 crore package specially aimed at tackling the problems facing Bangalore, the BJP had outlined what it called was a “Save Bangalore” campaign.
Even the Janata Dal (Secular), which has its base mainly in rural Karnataka, said that it would take?special?steps to improve the city’s infrastructure.