Saturday, May 24, 2008

The low voter turnout dilemma

In the recent Karnataka state elections, there was a very interesting debate regarding low voter turnout in Bangalore and associated issues of apathy of the urban middle-class, etc. [In fact, if there's any reader from Bangalore, I'd appreciate your views on this, because you'd have a better idea.]

Two articles of note here from the Mint.

1. The first article delves into some reasons as under.
Reason 1:
“The urban rich have other systems by which they can get things done, though it’s not necessarily by bribing (representatives),” says Rajiv Bhargava, head of the Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies. For instance, telephone and gas connections are freely available, and do not require the intervention of a well-connected local politician.
I was zapped when I read this. The thought itself is mind-boggling. So, the urban person votes because he/she expects the elected representative to get him/her a telephone line or a gas connection? And now since these are freely available, there's no need to vote? And this is democracy? I'm sure there's something to this argument, given that it comes from an expert, so I won't say anything much. I mean if the argument is extended, it supports the fact that slums see much higher voter turnout than middle and upper class - as is mentioned later in the same article .
“A very large part of the middle class in cities has enough money to get along with their lives. They do not depend on anybody for it and that explains why they don’t care,” Bhargava said, adding that it is only the poor who really have a stake in elections.
If extended one might even say that the indifference of those more privileged is justified, because, well, they don't need politicians. Whether it's true or not is debatable and I'll just leave it there.

Reason 2:
Politicians say the commission’s strict stance on campaigning played a negative role. “The Election Commission’s restrictions on campaigning this year and the timing of election day—coinciding with holidays—have contributed to the low turnout,” said K. Chandrashekar, a Congress party candidate from Bangalore’sBasavanagudi constituency and a former mayor of the city.
Not surprising, what else can you expect from a politician, but blame someone else.

Reason 3:
Political parties are used to low voter turnout in Bangalore—even municipal elections here see polling of between 35% and 40%.

This time around, say experts, the situation may have been made worse by the absence of charismatic candidates.

“There is a different kind of mobilization in rural areas where people know each other. It’s not so in cities,” said Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies.
Interesting thought. Reminds me of a certain charismatic candidate called Govinda - also a film star - who became an MP and soon enough all but renounced his duties claiming movies was his first priority. I'm also reminded of a how a housing colony in Mumbai achieved 90% voter turnout by making a concerted effort to gather it's residents and take them to vote, throwing in jalebi to keep spirits high (more here). So, I'm not sure I buy this logic either, but still, it comes from an expert.

Reason 4: Coming up next.

2. The second article is by Ramesh Ramanathan, a man I continue to admire for his work. In a well argued, cogent article, Mr. Ramanathan blames faulty electoral rolls for producing a suspect and highly debatable turnout figure.
When we say that voter turnout was 44%, we don’t know how many of these were genuine votes, and how many were proxy votes. Imagine two scenarios: one, where genuine voters were 240 and proxy voting was 200 votes, i.e., (240+200)/1,000; the second, where the genuine voters were 440 and proxy voting was zero, i.e., 40/1,000. Big difference in genuine voter turnout, almost 100%.

Here is what I think has happened in Bangalore this time around: We saw a much larger share of genuine voters — maybe 340 — and a smaller share of proxy voting — maybe 100. This is partly due to greater voter interest, and partly credit to the Election Commission, which worked very hard to reduce proxy voting. This means that genuine voter turnout actually increased by 100 votes, or 15% of the 600 genuine votes that are possible. This isn’t a trivial increase.
This now makes sense and puts things in perspective. Moreover, it points to something positive in society, i.e. people actually voting.

Back home in Mumbai, low voter turnout is an all-too familiar issue. NGO AGNI is doing a fine job, for e.g. in the BMC elections of last year, it (along with another NGO, ADR) even attempted to rate civic candidates, an important exercise that I hope is repeated in the state elections next year. The State Election Commission is doing, what I think, is an excellent effort- online and in the constituencies - for people to get voter ID cards.

So, the question I'm getting at is this - will we see a low voter turnout in Mumbai for next year's state elections? It's obviously too early to say. But I've seen the indifference in educated, highly-educated people. I've seen the sheer 'laziness' in getting a voter ID card and going to vote.

The excuses are all too familiar and go like "But how do I get a voters ID card?" (heard of the Internet? then go here), or "But my vote doesn't count" (yes it does) or "I don't like politicians" (and they don't like you either, but how does that matter?) or whatever. The fact of the matter is that apathy towards voting is real and it happens. I can't change it. I wonder how many of us think voting is a choice. Because I think it's a responsibility.

I don't want to switch on the moral button here, because I can't change your mind. If you have to vote you will. And if you don't want to, you won't. I'll just know that the ministers out there ruling over Mumbai are there because of me, and also because of you.