Column: Signs of greater voter participation

Updated: Apr 17 2014, 07:59am hrs
Will the high-decibel and multi-media election campaign of political parties, the swelling of the middle class voters and the involvement of the hitherto-aloof rich in electoral politics raise voter participation this summer History shows that voter turnout varied between 56% and 62% over the near-two-decades between 1991 and 2009. This period has seen the fortunes of leading political parties reverse. It saw the return of the Congress in 1991 after being voted out by a young and popular Janata Dal a little over a year ago; it saw the rollout of liberalisation and its failure to win votes; it witnessed the power of the Rath Yatra, the Babri Masjid demolition, invocation of Ram and the longest tenure of a non-Congress government; a high-pitched India Shining campaign that failed and paved the path for the return of the Congress.

Through all of this, voter turnout never reached the peak level of nearly 64% it reached in 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That was 30 years ago!

Voter turnout in the few states that have already gone to polls in the ongoing 2014 Lok Sabha elections was over 70%.In Nagaland and Tripura, the turnout was over 82%. This is not new; these states have always participated excellently in all elections. The big deal is the sharp increase in the voter turnout in Delhi. We will revert to this a little later. First, we highlight one interesting nugget discerned from the data provided by the Election Commission.

There is something about Communist-ruled states and the strength of voter turnout. States where Communist governments have ruled significantly, have systematically shown high voter turnout. The average voter turnout in West Bengal over the past two decades has been nearly 80%. In Kerala, the average is 73% (this is also the turnout in the elections held there last week) and in Tripura, it was 76%. These voter turnout rates are much higher than the 59% national average.

Possibly, it is the spread of awareness of the individuals' voting power through the Communist ideology in the hinterlands that made the big difference to voter turnout in these states. Kerala tops the country in terms of literacy; and Tripura also ranks high, but West Bengal's literacy rate is only average. So, literacy explains the behaviour only partly.

Of the major states, besides West Bengal and Kerala, Assam and Andhra Pradesh are enthusiastic voters too, with around 70% of the electorate casting their votes in Lok Sabha elections. Assam has been a state of considerable (and, in the past, often violent) political activism. Although voter participation this time is high, it is lower than its 75% and 79% turnout seen in 1991 and 1996, respectively.

Andhra Pradesh has seen a different kind of political activismfrom a deadly effort to gain statehood in 1953 to the dramatics of NT Rama Rao in the late 1980s and, now, the division of the state after the prolonged agitation for Telangana. Voter participation peaked in 2009, at nearly 73%.

The participation of electors in democracy has substantial variation. While the best states report over 80% voter turnout, the worst report 40%. In general, southern states participate in elections better than the northern states. But, the bottom of the participation spectrum is a strange mix of states. Jammu & Kashmir has the worst record of participation in electoral democracy. This is followed by Gujarat and then Delhi!

In Jammu & Kashmir, 49% of the electorate caste their vote in 1996. This dropped to 44% in 1998. But from 1999, voter turnout has been lower than 40%. However, Kashmiris vote better for their Assembly. Voter turnout was an impressive 61% in the state elections in 2008.

Kashmir is not the only state to display this preference to local elections and relative apathy towards the national elections. In general, the electorate turns out to vote in greater numbers for assembly elections than for the national elections. It will be interesting to see if Gujarat changes its historical position of being among the states with the lowest voter turnout for national elections, to promote its Chief Minister to the Prime Minister's chair. Less than 48% of the electorate of Gujarat cast their vote for the national elections in 2009. But, in the state elections held in 2012, 72% cast their vote. Now, with the national elections being projected as a referendum for their Chief Minister, voter participation in Gujarat should go up. As explained below, voter turnout shot up significantly in Delhi following the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The emergence of a Narendra Modi-centric campaign should, thus, see the voter apathy in Gujarat being shaken off significantly this time.

Gujarat is also amongst the worst states when it comes to female voter participation in the national elections. Only 43% of the female electors of Gujarat cast their votes in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. This was an improvement over the 40% participation in the preceding two elections. And even this is better than only Jammu & Kashmir, where only 34% cast their votes, and Bihar, where female voter participation was just a tad below 43%.

Till recently, Delhi's voter turnout for the national elections hovered between 44% and 54%, which has been consistently and significantly below the national average. But, the brilliant and rapid emergence of the AAP has more than just nudged the capital out of its relative apathy. The AAP effect was first seen in the Assembly elections in December 2013, when the voter turnout shot up to a record 66%. And the national elections, held in April 2014, saw a record turnout of 57%.

Gujarat and Delhi have a good reason to see an increase in voter turnout in the ongoing general election. But, will the other laggards also improve their participation Most of these are highly populous states such as Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Voter turnout in these states is only a little above 50%. Participation levels of these states wasn't so poor till it fell in the 2004 and 2009 elections to sub-50% levels. Given the enthusiasm of the Narendra Modi campaign in the North, voter participation in these states should improve in 2014.

However, even if that does happen, the relatively poor voter turnout in

Uttar Pradesh, in particular, is surprising. Its voter turnout was 48% in the 2004 and 2009 elections. This is a state that has the greatest segmentation of the voterswith a political party for many of the dominant communities. Collectively, these should have raised the voter participation level to much higher levels than, say, West Bengal that effectively had no more than three major political parties motivating the electors to make a trip to the polling stations.

There are signs that Indian democracy will see greater participation in 2014 than it witnessed any time in the past two decades. But, will it cross the record of 64% set in 1984

All data sourced from

Mahesh Vyas

The author is managing director & CEO, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy P Ltd