Saturday, April 25, 2009

Votes cast as a 'weapon of the weak'

By M H Ahssan

India's rich and middle class urban voters have failed to show up in large numbers to exercise their franchise in the country's 15th month-long general election. Despite a massive campaign to get the educated to vote, the software hubs of Bangalore and Pune, the two main metros which went to the polls in the second phase of voting on April 23, registered poor turnout.

In contrast to rural areas, which had a turnout of 60%, constituencies in Bangalore city registered a mere 46% turnout, a figure that is below the national average in two phases of voting so far but also lower than turnout in the 2004 general election. As in previous elections, in the two rounds of voting that have been completed in India's multi-phase general election, urban middle-class voters have indicated that they are laggards in comparison to the rural or urban poor.

Media reports on the Indian elections often draw attention to the magnitude of the electoral exercise. Indeed, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of the election. A 714-million-strong electorate will vote in 828,804 polling booths in 543 constituencies in a five-phase election spread over a month. Four million electoral officials and 2.1 million security personnel are overseeing the process to ensure that it is free, fair and peaceful. Animals, too, are on hand to assist in the process. In the states of Assam and Meghalaya in India's northeast, elephants carry officials and polling material to voting booths.

The Election Commission (EC), which conducts the polls, goes the extra mile to ensure that voters can exercise their franchise. In some parts of the country, which are inaccessible by roads, officials trek for three to four days or ride on the backs of elephants to set up polling booths.

In the western state of Gujarat, the EC has set up a polling booth for one voter - a priest in a temple in the heart of the Gir forest, which is home to the Asiatic lion. He will vote in the third phase of the election.

Officials brave wild animals, scorching heat, long treks, militants and impatient voters to ensure that people can exercise their fundamental right to vote.

As remarkable as these statistics or the logistics involved in conducting the election is the mass participation in Indian elections. Unlike the global trend of a steady decline in voting levels, in India voter turnout over the years has either increased or remained stable.

And what makes this rise in voter turnout significant is that it is spurred by the rise in participation in elections by the poor, women, lower castes and Dalits and tribals. The most vulnerable sections of Indian society are increasingly enthusiastic about voting.

Unlike Western democracies, which granted the right to vote first to propertied men, later educated men, then all men and only after much debate and agitation to women, independent India granted all adult men and women regardless of their religion, caste, language, wealth or education the right to vote in one fell swoop, points out Ramachandra Guha, author of India after Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy.

The Indian constitution granted all its citizens the right to vote. Right from the first general election in 1952, India's poorest and most marginalized sections have possessed the right to vote. And they have been the most keen to exercise this right.

Voter turnout in India has been higher in rural areas than in cities since 1977. The poor vote more than the rich, especially in urban areas and in the past four general elections, Dalits (or Untouchables as they used to be called) have voted more than upper-caste Hindus, says Yogendra Yadav, a political analyst with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies. "This 'participatory upsurge' from below has defined the character of Indian democracy in the past two decades or so," he says.

This is quite unlike the experience in Western democracies where it is the rich, the well-educated and those belonging to the majority community who are more likely to vote and participate in political activity.

Analysts have pointed out that if those at the lower end of the socio-economic hierarchy take the trouble to vote, defying threats and violence, it is because democracy is bringing change in their lives, however small these might be. Polling day is that one big day on which their decision matters, when their choice counts.

Voters defy militants' calls for a boycott of the poll to exercise their franchise. Maoists have called for a poll boycott and sought to impose it with intimidation and violence. Still, people in the states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have come out to vote. In assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir in November and December last year, 62% of the electorate voted in spite of a boycott call by separatists.

The media have often underestimated the rural/poor voter, looking on him or her as someone who votes along caste or other parochial lines, who votes as told to rather than on the basis of an informed choice.

This might be true, but only to a limited extent. In 2004, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) campaigned on an "India Shining" slogan. But India was not shining for rural Indians and those at the bottom of the heap. Unlike the educated/urban voter who swallowed the NDA's propaganda campaign, the rural voters registered their protest through the ballot box. They voted out the NDA. The vote is the "weapon of the weak", points out Yadav.

This time around, whether the rural voter who is reeling under a severe agrarian crisis is impressed by the 8% average economic growth rate achieved under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is debatable. To its credit, the UPA has put in place a rural employment guarantee scheme that provides one member of every rural household with work for 100 days every year.

Both the Congress and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have made provision of heavily subsidized wheat and rice a central plank in their election campaigns. The Congress has promised every poor family 25 kilograms of wheat or rice at 3 rupees (US$0.06) a kilogram and the BJP 35 kilograms at 2 rupees per kg.

One of the districts that voted in the first phase was Kandhamal in the eastern state of Orissa, which was ravaged by anti-Christian violence last year. Voter turnout in the district was 65.7%. About 90% of those still living in relief camps - people who are too terrified to return to their homes for fear of communal violence - turned up at polling booths despite a Maoist call for a poll boycott and fear of communal violence. Clearly, these victims of communal violence are looking on the ballot box with some hope.

How do Muslims - India's largest religious minority - view the democratic process? Contrary to the perception worldwide that Muslims do not believe in democracy, Muslims in India are as enthusiastic as Hindus in their stated support of democracy. Voter turnout among Muslims, which dipped in the early 1990s and again in 2004, has generally been rising or stable and is as robust as that among Hindus. "Clearly, Indian Muslims are not opting out of democratic politics," says Yadav.

It is not religion but class that appears to influence voter turnout. The rich and middle class Indian doesn't seem to share the faith the poor have in the elections and the power of the vote. Over the years, urban apathy has grown. All the parties are the same, urban voters grumble, pointing to the fielding of criminal and corrupt candidates in some areas.

Voter turnout in successive elections over the past two decades indicate that for all their whining about the quality of politicians who represent them in parliament and state assemblies, India's educated and more privileged sections don't do anything about it on polling day. They simply stay away.

South Mumbai, where many of India's millionaires and billionaires live and work is notorious for poor turnout on polling day, as is Bangalore, India's software hub. State assembly elections in Bangalore in May last year saw an abysmal 44% exercise their franchise, the lowest in the past five elections.

Will Mumbai, Delhi and other Indian cities go Bangalore's way in the coming phases of voting? The terror attacks in Mumbai in November last year shook up the country's politically apathetic youth and brought them out into the streets demanding greater accountability and better performance from the political elite. Thousands participated in candlelight vigils and online campaigns.

Whether they will leave the comfort of their air-conditioned homes to wait in long lines outside polling booths to vote in scorching heat is another matter.

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