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Business News/ Opinion / A high octane round of voting in states

A high octane round of voting in states

The surge in voting comes with big expectations from those being elected

Illustration by Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

With counting in elections to the assemblies in the five states that have gone or are going to the polls over the last one month yet to begin, there is already one clear winner. Based on numbers put out by the Election Commission, voter turnout this time has been at an all-time high. While Madhya Pradesh recorded its highest ever polling of over 70%, Rajasthan, too, posted a record 74.83%. The previous highest turnout in Madhya Pradesh was 69.58% in the 2008 assembly elections. In Chhattisgarh, too, the overall polling percentage across the two phases is around the 78% mark, considerably higher than the 70.51% in 2008. Even the Maoist-infested area of Konta recorded 40% voting. Mizoram, traditionally a high turnout state, saw 81% of the voters coming out, comparing favourably with the 82.3% in the previous assembly polls in 2008.

For a country where voter turnout has been traditionally anaemic (in the 2009 general election, average voter turnout was around 59.7%), those are encouraging numbers. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, average worldwide turnout of voters from 1990-2001 peaked at 79% in Oceania, ahead of Western Europe at 78% while the average for Asia was 72%. India, by contrast, was ranked 141 in the world at 59.4%.

To think that just a decade ago, the level of voter apathy in India had forced people to talk about compulsory voting for all those eligible. Thirty-eight years after Sanjay Gandhi tried to institute family planning through forced sterilizations and failed miserably in the attempt, this is another affirmation of how coercion does not work in India. In any programme, whether it is polio eradication or family planning, Indians, in urban areas as much as in rural, respond to the simple human drive: What’s in it for me?

Most established democracies have actually witnessed declining turnout since the 1960s either because people were happy with their lot or disillusioned about what the elected would do for them. Even in the US presidential elections of 2008, voter turnout was 64%. In a paper titled, A Theory of the Calculus of Voting in The American Political Science Review, William H. Rikerand Peter C. Ordeshook from the University of Rochester listed five major reasons why people vote: complying with the social obligation to vote; affirming one’s allegiance to the political system; affirming a partisan preference (also known as expressive voting, or voting for a candidate to express support, not to achieve any outcome); affirming one’s importance to the political system; and, for those who find politics interesting and entertaining, researching and making a decision.

India’s lower turnout, hovering between 50-60% through most Union elections since the 1950s, has meant that a very sizeable chunk of the eligible voting population hasn’t been part of the political decision-making process. Some have even argued that far from skewing the democratic process this may actually be a good thing since it ensured that only those who had the political maturity and a keen desire to participate in the elections, voted, leading to better choices.

The argument is of course laughable, given the quality of those elected as also the fact that the ones who stayed away are those who had little faith in the electoral system’s ability to deliver real change.

The amazing thing of course is that these turnout numbers are despite bungling in the voting lists with studies by Bangalore-based Janaagraha, a non-profit organization that promotes citizens’ participation in urban local government, showing how voting percentages have been skewed by so-called phantom voters. With greater efficiency in preparing voting lists and lesser bureaucracy which inhibits people’s ability to cast their votes, these numbers could well go up with consequent benefits to the democratic process.

Perhaps the most significant impact of the high turnout is the marginalization of special-interest groups. The ability of a small 2% group mobilized around a rallying cause, which could be social or political exclusion, to influence the election results because a section of the majority chose to stay away, takes a hit in such circumstances. This can only be good for the health of a democracy since vested interests don’t get a disproportionate play.

But make no mistake. This surge of voters comes with greater expectations from those who are being elected. This is a new India. Apathy is not the style of the young first time voter who believes in demanding the best that a participative democracy can offer.

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Published: 03 Dec 2013, 08:16 PM IST
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