People as voters

SANJAY KUMAR

THE last decade has witnessed an increased turnout in Indian elections at all levels – national (Lok Sabha), state assembly elections and elections to the local bodies. This has happened not because of any change in rules and regulations, but due to the increased interest of the people in elections and better mobilization strategies adopted by the candidates, political parties as well as the Election Commission. The cleaning of electoral rolls by the Election Commission of India (ECI), the change in voting system from paper ballots to electronic voting machines (EVM), and now the paper trail,1 has added to building greater legitimacy in the electoral process, which has motivated people to vote in bigger numbers.

During the last seven decades, not only has the nature of electioneering and election campaigns changed, the corresponding times also witnessed changes in the electoral participation of voters, candidates and political parties.  Electoral democracy is all about people’s participation in the political process and voter turnout is the most significant variable to objectively measure the level of people’s participation. Over the years, the participation of people in political processes, mainly voting, has seen a rise. The turnout has gone up from 46% in the first national election (Lok Sabha elections) held in 1952 to 67% in the most recent Lok Sabha election held in 2019.

The turnout figures for all the Lok Sabha elections held till present suggest, for a very long time, that turnout stabilized between 58-60%, as large number of national elections witnessed turnouts between 58-60% with only a few exceptions. The 1984 Lok Sabha election held after the assassination of Indira Gandhi witnessed a turnout of 64%, which was the highest till the 2014 Lok Sabha election which witnessed a much higher turnout of 66%. The 2014 Lok Sabha election turned out to be a turning point as the turnout increased by eight percentage points compared to the 2009 Lok Sabha election – 66% vis-a-vis 58%. This trend continued during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which witnessed an even higher turnout of 67%.

Though the Hindi heartland states of North India continued to witness a lower turnout compared to the smaller states of the North East and the hill states, even states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and others witnessed a significant increase in voter turnout. Compared to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, these states witnessed a jump of about 10 percentage point both during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

 

 

Source: CSDS Data Unit.

* Elections were not held in Assam (1989) and Jammu & Kashmir (1991).

Source: CSDS Data Unit.

 

Note: The Classification of rural, semi-urban and urban is based on estimates by the CSDS Data unit. Constituencies with 75% plus urban population have been classified as urban, while constituencies with 25% or less urban population had been classified as rural. Rest all are classified as semi urban.

 

The state assembly elections continued to see a higher turnout compared to the Lok Sabha elections. A comparison between various Lok Sabha and assembly elections held during the last decade (2009-2019) in different states, during the same period, clearly indicates that people came out to vote in bigger numbers during the assembly elections compared to the Lok Sabha elections. It is also important to note that the states witnessed a corresponding increase in turnout in the assembly elections along with an increased turnout in the Lok Sabha election. This trend is visible in all the states, with a couple of exception. The trend of higher electoral participation in assembly elections may be because people often foresee tangible benefits flowing from state governments as opposed to national policies motivating them to vote in bigger numbers in state assembly elections.

Additionally, fewer urban people voted as compared to their rural counterparts. Data from the last few Lok Sabha elections suggest that the turnout in urban constituencies has been much lower compared to the average turnout, while the rural and semi-urban consistencies witness turnouts almost at par or slightly higher than the average turnout. During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, turnout among urban voters was nearly seven percentage point lower compared to the national average turnout. This should not come as a surprise as there is a history of the urban population voting in lesser numbers compared to rural voters. It is interesting to note that people in small towns showed greater participation in the process of voting compared to voters in the village or those living in big cities. There was hardly any change in this trend between the two Lok Sabha elections.

Let us now look at electoral participation of voters from different social communities. While there is no empirical data to support the argument that the election in India pre-Mandal period used to witness a higher turnout amongst the well-to-do sections namely the rich and upper class, educated and upper castes, this trend has witnessed a major change in the post-Mandal years, and more recently in the last few decades.

The implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, which recommended 27% reservation for candidates belonging to Other Backward Classes2 (OBC), witnessed a lot of opposition nationwide, mainly by the upper castes youth who were at the receiving end. The backwards mobilization posed a tough challenge to the anti-Mandal agitations leading to a violent struggle on the streets between the anti-reservationists (mainly upper caste youth), and pro-reservationists (mainly backward caste youth). The violent struggle between these two sections led to the externalization of the undercurrent of age-old and deep-seated hatred between the forwards and backwards. Earlier, apart from a few instances, it was the forwards who generally dominated the backwards but this was a rare occasion when the divided backwards joined together to challenge the opposition of the Forward caste.

The turnout amongst Dalit voters has increased in the post Mandal years.3 The 1996 Lok Sabha elections, and elections held after that witnessed an upsurge in turnout amongst Dalits, but the pattern did not remain the same in all the elections. There had been some decline in turnout amongst Dalits in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. Though most of the states witnessed high turnout among Dalits, states like Bihar, Assam, Delhi, Karnataka and Maharashtra witnessed a lower turnout among Dalits compared to the state average turnout. The story about Adivasis is not very different from the Dalit voters.4 There is an upsurge in turnout amongst Adivasis as well. The turnout among the Adivasi voters has surpassed the national average voter’s turnout. It is important to note that higher turnout amongst Adivasis is witnessed not in one, two or few states, but this trend of increasing electoral participation is visible amongst the Adivasis across many states.

The turnout amongst the Muslims has been slightly lower compared to average turnouts both during the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. A similar trend was witnessed during the 2004 Lok Sabha elections as well. This disenchantment may have resulted in their not turning out to vote. The 2004 Lok Sabha election was also held in the backdrop of the 2002 Godhra riots,
and that may have demotivated Muslims from participating in the elections. The 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, however, witnessed significant Muslim participation in voting.

 

Source: CSDS Data Unit

Source: Election Commission of India.

 

 

One major change in Indian election has been the participation of women, both in state assembly as well as Lok Sabha elections. There used to be a big gender gap with regard to women’s turnout in elections. The elections held in 1950 and the 1960s witnessed a gender gap of more than 15% which got stabilized to about 10% for a very long period. All the Lok Sabha elections held between 1991 and 2004 witnessed a gender deficit of nearly 10%. The gap in gender turnout reduced in 2009 significantly, but still remained at four percentage point. This further reduced to 1.6% during the 2014 Lok Sabha election and was less than one percent in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Barring a period of stagnation from 1984 until 2004, there has been a consistent decline in the gap, falling from 8% in 1999, to 4.4% in 2009, to 1.46% in 2014 and to less than 1% in 2019. In fact, many states have recorded an all-time high turnout for women.

An analysis of the aggregate data released by the Election Commission of India on turnout in various assembly elections held in India between 1990 and 2019 suggests that the gender gap in turnout did not change much between 1990 and 2001. The turnout among women voters began to increase in earnest from 2002 onwards; in most assembly elections held after that, women’s turnout continued to increase. We notice this change in most of the states to varying degrees. While some change in the turnout among women voters began in the mid-1990s, the most significant change happened from 2008 onwards. In fact, states that had witnessed a narrow gender gap in men and women’s turnout in the 1990s saw the trend move in the opposite direction: during the period 2008-2019, these states witnessed a higher turnout among women voters compared to men.

One wonders what may have contributed to this increase in electoral participation amongst various section of Indians. While it is difficult to establish a causal relationship, but there is evidence to suggest that Indian voters attach greater value to their vote now compared to the past. More than two decades back, 63% Indian voters believed that their vote had effect; by 2019 the number had increased to 70%.

Source: NES 1999-2019, CSDS Data Unit.

 

 

Another factor, which may have contributed to the increased turnout among women voters in Indian elections, is a change in the way women voters decided whom to vote for. Two decade back, a much larger number of women voters were being guided by others – 41% voted on the advice of others while 54% voted on their own. The number of women voters who took an independent decision increased to 81% in 2019 while the number of women voters who took advice of others declined from 41% in 1999 to 14% in 2019.

In a multiparty electoral democracy, following the first past the post system, electoral verdicts have often either been with narrow margins or at times with the winner polling only a small proportion of votes. Indian elections have witnessed various changes even with regard to victory margins. The elections held between 1967 and 1977 witnessed a trend of increasing victory margins, the gap between the winner and runners-up widened in successive Lok Sabha elections. The gap between the winner and runner-up was 13.7% during the 1967 Lok Sabha election, which increased to 23.9% during the 1971 Lok Sabha election.

The 1977 Lok Sabha election saw a large number of candidates elected with big margins; the gap between winner and runners-up was at 26.1%. But soon after, there was a systematic decline in the gap between the runners-up and the winner. The 1996 Lok Sabha election witnessed a gap of 11.9%. Since then, for a very long time, the gap between the winner and runners-up has stabilized at about 10% till the 2009 Lok Sabha election.

The 2014 Lok Sabha election was a turning point in this respect when the gap between the runner-up and the winner widened to 15.2%, which further widened to 17.3% in
the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The increasing gap between the winner and runner-up indicates the victor winning elections with much bigger margins, a sign of a decisive vote. The 2019 Lok Sabha election saw 341 Lok Sabha members elected, having polled more than 50% or more votes.

The decisive vote of the people now compared to the past is also reflected in the way people voted in assembly elections held in different states. In a large number of cases, the winning party won the election with a handsome majority, and was able to form government on its own. The assembly elections in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana could be seen as outliers during the last decade, but most of the other state assembly elections witnessed voters giving a convincing mandate in favour of one political party.

Despite the speculation of the BJP facing resistance among various section of voters, especially after Covid-19 and the farmers unrest, the BJP not only retained power in the four states where it was the ruling party, but it convincingly won in UP and Uttarakhand. It is not only about the BJP winning elections convincingly, parties which have won an election in different states have done so convincingly – TMC in West Bengal, DMK in Tamil Nadu, AAP in Punjab and earlier in Delhi, LDF in Kerala among others.

Footnotes:

1. Voter verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) is an independent verification system for voting machines designed to allow voters to verify that their vote was cast correctly. It further helps to detect possible election fraud or malfunction, and to provide a means to audit the stored electronic results. It contains the name of the candidate for whom the vote has been cast and the symbol of the party/individual candidate.

2. The Other Backward Class (OBC) is a collective term used by the Government of India to classify castes which are educationally or socially disadvantaged.

3. Dalit refers to people from the lowest caste in the social hierarchy.

4. Adivasis is a collective term for tribal peoples of the Indian subcontinent, who are considered indigenous to India wherein they live. Adivasis of India are officially termed as Scheduled Tribes.