The Indian summer is too hot for elections

Between monsoons, wedding seasons, religious festivals, three separate cropping seasons and surprisingly intense winters, there just aren’t that many suitable dates to schedule elections.  (Photo: Reuters)
Between monsoons, wedding seasons, religious festivals, three separate cropping seasons and surprisingly intense winters, there just aren’t that many suitable dates to schedule elections. (Photo: Reuters)


  • A drop in voter turnout should put soaring temperatures under scrutiny as a factor. With global warming afoot and long waits in line a given for voting, India should consider sparing its voters such discomfort.

How do you run a democracy when the mercury rises above 40° Celsius? That’s the problem faced by voters in India. A swathe of the country’s east is sweltering under a brutal heatwave. The city centre of Kolkata has emptied out, schools have cancelled classes, and one TV presenter collapsed on air with heat stroke.

The first round of 7-phase general elections, which took place on Friday, seems to have been another casualty: turnout was down four percentage points relative to the last poll in 2019, as reported. Multiple officials quoted by the paper cited the effect of extreme heat, adding also that a wedding season and general apathy may have been factors. Some of the most intense temperatures last week were on the east coast, keenly watched battlegrounds where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has traditionally been weak relative to its performance in the north and west. There were about 7.6 million fewer voters in the 102 seats polled Friday, as per estimates by Yogendra Yadav, an election analyst and political activist. The world’s largest democracy is going to struggle more with this as the planet warms. It will have to overhaul its hulking electoral machinery to keep up.

The length of voting lines in US federal elections are a perennial scandal, prompting lawsuits, protests and a Curb Your Enthusiasm story line. The challenges you’ll face standing around in the middle of fall in the US are nothing, however, compared to an Indian pre-monsoon heatwave. There’s both idealistic and cynical reasons to change. Encouraging the highest possible turnout ought to be an end in itself for any democracy. US elections have been held at the start of November since the mid-19th century because farmers in what was then a largely agricultural society had completed the harvest and the coldest winter weather was yet to come. That was seen as the best way of boosting turnout.

India may have ended up with its recent run of summer elections for similar reasons. Prime ministers get to choose the date of the polls. Between monsoons, wedding seasons, religious festivals, three separate cropping seasons and surprisingly intense winters, however, there just aren’t that many suitable dates. Every Indian general election since 2004 has been held in April and May. There’s a more wily reason to target changing seasons, too. Climate seems to have measurable if much-debated effects on voter behaviour. In the UK, all but one of the 11 general elections since 1979 have also happened in April, May or June, when politicians appear to believe the spring sunshine will imbue people with optimism that will benefit incumbents. By the same token, waiting in line in furnace-like temperatures might not be the best way to convince wavering voters the government has its priorities straight.

There are plenty of fixes that could be made here. India has nearly a billion registered voters, but few provisions to make the ballot process easier. Postal and absentee voting is only available to people with disabilities, those over 85 (raised this time around from 80 in 2019), and certain essential services workers. Everyone else needs to turn up on the day or miss the opportunity. Roughly half a billion people who have migrated from other areas of the country face barriers to voting in their home towns, an issue that the country’s Election Commission is only starting to address.

In-person pre-poll voting may be a challenge, given the sheer scale of the vote. There simply aren’t enough poll workers to run it in a country with a million voting booths. Still, postal ballots ought to be far more widely used.

Above all, though, Indian politicians need to reconsider the timing of the polls. Punishing monsoon seasons aren’t going away any time soon. Indeed, they’re only likely to get worse as the accumulated carbon pollution from richer countries, as well as that resulting from India’s own failing renewables programmes, raises temperatures in April and May to still-more unbearable levels. An earlier ballot, perhaps kicking off after Republic Day in late January would avoid the worst times.

It’s possible the current election could provide the catalyst for such a change. Despite the BJP’s roots as an urban, upper-caste party, the constituencies that Modi has increasingly relied upon since coming to power in 2014 have been rural, lower-income and lower-caste voters who are likely to be put off by sweltering weather on election day. The low turnout Friday appears to have rattled the BJP.

We should usually worry when populist leaders start messing around with the mechanics of elections. If it would mean more voters getting to India’s polls without withering in the summer heat, that might be a risk worth taking. ©bloomberg

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