As we have completed each phase of the 2014 Parliamentary elections, we have been almost competitive about voter turnout. Which city or state fared best, who had the highest percentage earliest in the day?
Across the board with striking exceptions, voter turnout has been excellent these elections. In the first phase, Assam had 75% turnout, and Tripura 85%. All five states that voted in the second phase – Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur – got what would be termed first division in Indian university exams, with Manipur getting 70% and Nagaland 88.5%.
In the third phase which covered several “mainland” states and the island territories, turnout was generally lower. Jharkhand, Haryana and Odisha had the lowest turnout with 39%, 43% and 44% respectively, but the voting percentages for Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh were also in the 50s. In the fourth phase, Assam, Tripura, Goa and Sikkim voted and the turnout stayed between 75% and 82%.
In the fifth phase, turnout was lowest in Madhya Pradesh with 54%, and stellar in Odisha, Manipur and West Bengal. However, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh also registered turnouts in the 60s. In the sixth phase, only 28% showed up to vote in the one constituency that went to the polls in Jammu and Kashmir, but West Bengal and Tamil Nadu registered high turnouts. Voter turnout was low in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Jammu and Kashmir had the lowest turnout in the seventh phase, when elections were held in one constituency again, just 25.62%. Turnout was higher than 60% everywhere else, with Dadra and Nagar Haveli leading at 85%. In the eighth phase, turnout in Jammu and Kashmir in two constituencies was almost 50%, but other states performed well with West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh registering 81.28% and 76.01% respectively.
The striking exceptions were three affluent, high-profile constituencies: South Mumbai with 55% turnout, South Chennai with 57.86% and the three constituencies in Bengaluru averaging 54%. South Mumbai and Bengaluru South had several good candidates who campaigned visibly and vocally. As a South Chennai voter, I can attest to the fact that most voters in our queue were reading candidate names for the first time on the Election Commission poster outside the polling booth.
From the very first phase, what has been striking to me is that, with the exception of Jammu and Kashmir, voter turnout has been high in places where the idea of the Indian state has been most challenged, even with violence. Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram in the northeast; states most affected by the Maoist insurgency (Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh), and Odisha, where multiple contestations over who should control and use natural resources have challenged the right of the state to make economic decisions – all these states voted in larger numbers than the comfortable citizens of Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru.
This is absolutely remarkable for two reasons. First, to come out and vote, you have to believe your vote matters. In spite of their day-to-day problems with Indian officials – administration and police – voters in these conflict-affected areas still invest enough faith in the act of voting. They could have felt, as perhaps did voters in Jammu and Kashmir, that their participation would make no difference to their lives but they still showed up in large numbers to vote. The second reason it is remarkable is that in conflict zones, people have to risk violence from those who wish to stop the election or walk past mines or vote in an environment where small arms are common and can be used at the slightest conflagration. They still show up to vote.
In 2,000, I got to be part of a team of international observers at the Sri Lankan Parliamentary election. There was much anxiety and there had been many reports of violence through the campaign period. A combination of the kind of election violence that India knew in the late 1980s (booth-capturing and intimidation) coexisted with the violence of a civil war that waged along with the elections.
Polling booths opened at 7.00 am, and by 9.30-10.00 am, the voter turnout had crossed 70% in the areas we were assigned in central Sri Lanka. People had figured out that to prevent others from voting in their name, they needed to go out early in the morning and claim their own vote. Moreover, they figured that those bound to make mischief would not reach the constituency early in the morning, and it would be safe to go out and vote at that hour. Not voting was not an option. Turnout was 76%.
Just a few days before India’s elections got under way, the world rejoiced to see photographs from the Afghanistan elections. The Presidential polls took place as Afghanistan anticipates an important political and security transition with the withdrawal of international troops from its soil. The Taliban had warned that it would attack election workers and polling stations, but that did not stop the voters from waiting in the rain to vote. Nor did the 690 attacks counted by the defence ministry. The turnout at close of polls was 58%, with a very large percentage of women voters.
The contrast between those who would rather avail of a long weekend and those who risk life and limb to vote is so striking as to be banal. Still, as a political scientist and someone committed to peace work, it is hard to ignore. What do academics say about why people living in the most fragile situations still value the process of voting? Not much directly. Studies have found that people vote more right after terrorist incidents and there have been studies of how they vote. (For instance, the one reported here and this one here). People writing about violence and elections tend to write about the risks during an election for violence to occur. The election itself is a thinly veiled conflict. There is a growing body of work on the role of elections as a part of post-conflict peace-building, like this one.
None of these answer the question in my head: What does an election offer a voter in Chhattisgarh or Manipur, that it doesn’t offer my neighbours in South Chennai? Why do voters defy threats to show up and vote in an election for a government in a state that has by and large failed them? I can think of three simple reasons.
Caught in the cross-fire between state and non-state actors, perhaps elections offer to voters in militarized areas one chance to speak up – by voting. In that context, while the state might view its ability to successfully organize an election as a victory over those who challenge it, for once, the competition benefits ordinary voters. Using the opportunity of extraordinary security, they are able to come forth and express their choice. Perhaps they are also saying, given a choice, they would rather have a non-violent conversation about their lives. Showing up to vote may not mean voters absolve state forces of all their acts of omission and commission, but it might definitely be taken as a preference for non-violent means of conflict resolution.
Where the conflict is about identity, being able to vote – as a resident, as a native, as a legal citizen – is also a way of asserting ownership over the system, especially insofar as it denies someone else that right. The origins of the 1980s conflict in Assam lay in contestations of who was a citizen and therefore, eligible to vote. In most conflict-affected parts of India, the contest is no longer a simple David-Goliath, oppressed group versus hegemonic state one. Many non-state actors and many agents of the state are conflict parties, as multiple conflicts wage simultaneously. Voting is a way for ordinary people to take back agency as well as ownership; this moment, this day, belong to them.
Early elections in the post-conflict period are seen as ushering in a democratic transition but the jury is still out on whether that happens. Some feel that premature elections hasten a return to conflict as unresolved issues remain and cast a shadow on election process and outcomes. However, the post-conflict context offers an opportunity for introducing quotas and re-writing the rules to be more inclusive and encourage participation of more citizens as both voters and candidates. During a protracted conflict situation, women and men have opportunities for agency that could result in a habit of participation. This might account for the high turnout in Nagaland, for instance.
Still, none of these explains the difference in turnout between the most beleaguered regions of India and the most pampered. Is the experience of conflict more likely to make people care about non-violent political participation? If that is the case, logically, everyone should suffer conflict for a while in order to value their right to vote in peace. (No, I don't actually recommend this.) But then, right after the 26/11 attacks too, South Mumbai did not show up to vote.
One comes to think that the correct questions are not, “Why does this happen?” or “How can we change this?”, but “Do apathetic citizens deserve so much attention?” After all, those whom we ignore and whose lives remain background noise on the mainstream news, are reaching out by voting to say, “Hey, I’m still around, and I think I am a part of this political community.” No matter what the outcome of this election, it’s time to listen to those who are reaching out to be heard.
Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist and the founder of Prajnya.