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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 21, May 9, 2009

Why do Urban Voters not Register their Votes?

Wednesday 13 May 2009, by Sandeep Shastri

In the ongoing Lok Sabha polls many of those who had the chance to exercise their franchise did not do so. For every voter who decides to exercise his/her franchise there is another voter who is either unable to vote or decides against making the journey to the voting machine. What are its implications for the health of Indian democracy? How do we explain this phenomenon of ‘low‘ voter turnout? How ‘low‘ is low?

In the recent past, a trend has been increasingly visible across the country. There is a surge in participation (as voters) among the socially and economically less privileged and an alarming ‘exit‘ among those voters who are on the higher end of the socio-economic ladder. Some would explain it in terms of an urban-rural divide also. After 26/11 the general feeling was that the voters in Mumbai, being agitated over how they are being governed, would like to assert their voice. Many campaigns were launched to inspire Mumbaikars to exercise their franchise. Figures show that the voting levels are less than 50 per cent lower than the turnout in the last Lok Sabha polls of 2004. The same holds good for Pune and Bengaluru as well. With the ‘high visibility‘ voter mobilisation campaign, many hoped that the voter turnout would cross 60 per cent. Bengaluru had the distinction of hovering around 50 per cent, much lower that the figures for the 2004 elections. Beyond doubt this ‘low turnout‘ is abysmally ‘low‘ and patently ‘embarrassing‘ for every conscientious urbanite.

Let me try to be the devil’s advocate and try to explain things from the perspective of those who did not vote—maybe they were unable to vote. The second category first. Many studies have found that the errors of omission and commission on the voters’ list in urban areas are frightfully high. It is true that many of those who ventured out to vote as conscientious and committed citizens of Bengaluru, found their names missing in the voters’ list. Something truly frustrating that deserves immediate attention. Did these voters cross-check whether their names were on the list prior to election day? These lists were available on the net or could be accessed at well-publicised locations. There was an opportunity to remedy the error.

In Bengaluru if we survey the areas where voting was exceptionally low, one would notice that these would mostly be areas where the middle class and upper class live. As the Election Commissioner observed, low voter turnout in the city may have been caused by the marriage season, school holidays and excessive heat. Excessive heat is, of course, not a typically urban phenomenon. It just so happened that the voting day in Bengaluru fell on such a day that if someone were to take one day’s leave, they would have a five-day break! The prospect of a long holiday was too tempting for many. The gains were significant—the losses, if any, could be easily glossed over. A lot of middle-class voters in Bengaluru may have preferred to use this welcome break to go back to their home towns or on a holiday. This explains why some of the other smaller urban areas in Karnataka were not hit by a low voter turnout. Voters here were closer to their home towns or at their home towns and thus could both vote and enjoy a brief vacation.

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This requires us to ask an important question: for many urbanites, how important is voting in their priority list? Very often, at the rock bottom or not on the priority list at all. Why? It could be the result of a genuine frustration with the electoral process, the way it works, the choices it offers and the results it produces. Many urbanites complain about the lack of choices, the uninspiring profile of the candidates and their past experience with the performance of elected representatives. Many of them would applaud the ‘none-of-the-above‘ option on the EVM! This attitude should ring an alarm bell for all political parties. It implies that these parties, their chosen candidates and their agendas have not been able to inspire the urban middle-class voters. Is there a problem with the way in which parties select their nominees to contest the polls? Are the selections made so late in the day that the candidates have neither the time to work out a creative strategy to woo the urban voters nor the capacities to reach out to their constituency? Was the rise of ‘high profile‘ independent candidates in urban areas seen by many as a response to the near bankruptcy in ideas and lacklustre candidates that mainstream parties fielded? Yet these high-profile candidates do not seem to have made a major impact.

Yet another uncomfortable question needs to be posed: for urbanites, is frustration with the electoral process a mask to hide their disinterest and disconnect with politics? As I rushed back to Bengaluru on the eve of the election day in order to vote, I ran into an acquaintance who was flying out of Bengaluru with his family. He was excited about the fact that by taking a day’s leave (Friday) he had a long five-day break. He was amused at my question : ‘Will your wife and you not be voting tomorrow?‘ ‘I have not voted for the last twenty years,‘ was his answer; his wife nodded approvingly. As an afterthought he added: ‘Why waste time voting … they are all clowns and crooks.‘ Clowns and crooks many of them may be but we seem to revel in being entertained by them and silently watch them bleeding the state! Let’s face it straight—the urban middle class is not in sync with the reality of politics. They do not need the political process to be able to resolve their challenges as and when they arise. They have the resources and the influence to get their problems resolved and feel little need to be associated with the electoral/democratic process. Their intense negativism about politics is often a mask to camouflage their indifference.

Urban voters see no direct personal benefit from the electoral process. While they are all passionate advocates of democracy they have little tolerance for the messy politics it produces! Has this triggered off the disengagement? How then do we convince this apathetic middle class to log on to the electoral process? Why did the many campaigns to involve urban voters not have any impact? Possibly, the campaigns started too late in the day. Such campaigns require a long haul and cannot produce ‘instant‘results.

On hearing of the low voter turnout, I overheard a colleague giving vent to his frustration: ‘When we are back to work after this long break, there should be a check on whether all employees voted. If the mark is not found on their finger they should be made to compensate by working on a holiday as they did not use the voting holiday for what it was meant!‘ Will it help solve the problem? Or as a leading politician recently suggested: ‘Compulsory voting is the solution.‘ I am not too sure. The desire to exercise one’s franchise should flow from inner motivation and not from external pressures.

Perhaps the campaign to bring out the urban voter in 2014 should begin in right earnest in 2009 itself!

Dr Shastri is a Pro Vice-Chancellor, Jain University, Bengaluru; he can be reached at sshastri@eth.net

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