Be it Japan, Great Britain or the United States, low voters’ turn-out has become a subject of discussion and debate in many advanced democracies of the world. Though people may often be seen exchanging views on issues related to their problems when it comes to exercising their adult franchise, they simply shy away. Now in countries like India too much is being made out of the fall in the percentage this time.
Marriage season, harvesting or post-harvesting time, Maoists’ and militants’ diktats, general disenchantment of voters, torrid temperature, etc. are being held responsible for the low turn-out this time. But these factors were applicable in the past elections too and it is not only this time that the general elections are being held at the peak of summer season. In 1991, 1996 and 2004 too elections were held in April-May and in 1999 it took place in late monsoon amidst floods in a large part of the country. For example in Bihar the Election Commission had to postpone the election in four parliamentary constituencies because of the floods. The election finally took place after the new Lok Sabha was constituted in October 1999.
The Maoists and militants too are not new to our country. Though the militants were present in Jammu and Kashmir when the assembly election took place in that state in the icy cold winter last December yet the polling percentage at many places were better than this time. For example, the 16 Assembly segments of Anantnag parliamentary constituency, considered to be the militant stronghold, witnessed 56 per cent poll in December Assembly election whereas on April 30, when the weather was much pleasant for the Himalayan state the percentage in Anantnag was less than half, that is, over 25 per cent. Yet this figure is higher than 2004 parliamentary election in which the turn-out was 15 per cent. Similarly, the Maoists’ diktat was very much there in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh when the two states, along with Delhi and Rajasthan, went to poll in November last year.
So what is special about this parliamentary election that the turn-out is not crossing 50 per cent mark in many states? States like West Bengal witnessed 13 per cent fall while Karnataka and Bihar 12 and 10 per cent respectively when compared to 2004 Lok Sabha elections. This phenomenon needs to be analysed.
It is generally felt that when the elections are held sans any issue, the percentage is low. For example, during the heydays of Mandal-Mandir both the groups tried to assert themselves with the help of the ballots. Therefore, there was enthusiasm on both the sides. Assembly and parliamentary elections held in those days, especially in North India, evoked very good response. In 1999 Lok Sabha election the BJP and its allies whipped up the nationalist feeling by making the victory in Kargil war a poll issue. They, in a way, managed to succeed in bringing their supporters to the polling booths. In the same way there was a strong anti-incumbency factor against the NDA in 2004, especially after its misdeeds in Gujarat. This prompted a large number of voters to come out and vote.
In 2008 Assembly election, the electorate in Jammu and Kashmir were more keen to decide the fate of their own state government than who should rule in Delhi. Therefore, they braved the militants’ bullets as well as inclement weather and more than 60 per cent turned to the respective booths. Today when the separatists reluctantly and belatedly gave election boycott call, the booths wore deserted look. So more than the militants, it is the general apathy towards the central rule which kept the voters away.
In other extremist-infested states too it is clear that the electorates show more enthusiasm in electing their state governments than the national government in Delhi. In the general elections people do come out to vote in a large number when the picture is clear. Unlike in the past there is a general confusion and disenchantment in the mind of the voters this time. Even the hardened Congress supporters are not satisfied with the way it is fighting election in several states. Its decision to go alone in many states created a sense of disillusionment among its voters. Similarly, there is general absence of fighting spirit in the BJP rank and file and they lack the killing instinct this time. Thus the whole electioneering remained relatively a low-key affair.
The turn-out matters from election to election too. This is true for other countries as well. For example, the turn-out in the British local bodies election is less than that of the Parliament. This may be very much against some parts of India where there is massive struggle for getting empowered at the grassroots level. For example, in West Bengal – and Bihar too – the panchayat elections often turn quite bloody though at times close relatives are in contest.