Higher turnout doesnt just reflect greater voter enthusiasm.
To begin with,a word of caution. Dont get surprised by,or read too much in,the high turnouts in the recently concluded assembly elections in five states. A higher turnout in the four states of Chhattisgarh,Madhya Pradesh,Rajasthan and Delhi (Mizoram witnessed a marginally lower turnout of 81.2 per cent in 2013, compared to 82.2 per cent in 2008),should not be read as a vote against the incumbent. If higher turnout necessarily meant a vote against the ruling party,the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar,Sheila Dikshit government in Delhi,Narendra Modi government in Gujarat,and Bhupinder Singh Hooda government in Haryana should not have been re-elected recent assembly elections in these states witnessed a much higher turnout compared to previous assembly elections. Nor does a lower turnout inevitably mean a vote for the status quo,or in favour of the ruling government. In the recent past,there have been assembly elections where turnouts declined and the ruling party lost the election,as in Rajasthan (2008).
The higher turnouts in the recently concluded assembly elections are merely a continuation of the trend we have witnessed in most assembly elections held since 2003. This higher turnout is more a result of the better quality of electoral rolls,especially in urban constituencies,due to the weeding out of the names of ghost voters,and less a reflection of the actual increase in the number of voters who cast their vote.
Provisional figures released by the Election Commission indicate a nearly 4 per cent increase in turnout in Chhattisgarh (71 per cent in 2008,75 per cent in 2013),an increase of about 3 per cent in Madhya Pradesh (69.6 per cent in 2008,72 per cent in 2013),and a nearly 9 per cent increase in Rajasthan (66.5 per cent in 2008,75 per cent in 2013). By all indications,the turnout in Delhi has also significantly overtaken the figure of 57.6 per cent in 2008.
Of the 24 assembly elections held in different states in recent years (excluding these five assembly elections),turnout increased in 19 assembly elections. It marginally declined in Chhattisgarh (between 2003 and 2008),Orissa (between 2004 and 2009),and in Rajasthan (between 2003-2008),while there was hardly any change in turnout in Jharkhand in the two assembly elections held in 2005 and 2009. Clearly,the recent increase in turnout in four states only reflects a continuation of the trend.
There is also clear evidence to prove that there is no irrefutable connection between an increased turnout and the anti-incumbent vote. Between 2003 and 2012,assembly elections were held in 24 major states and of these,14 states saw the same party getting re-elected,and nine states witnessed a change in government. Of the 14 states where the same party got reelected,the turnout increased in 11 states,while in three states,the turnout declined. On the other hand,states in which the government changed also witnessed an increased turnout,except Rajasthan,where the turnout declined marginally between 2003 and 2008 (from 67.2 per cent in 2003 to 66.5 per cent in 2008).
What accounts for this general trend of increasing turnouts,not only in these assembly elections but in almost all the assembly elections held in the last decade? Is it due to the increased interest of voters in the political-electoral process,or because of successful mobilisation of the voters by political parties?
These two factors have indeed contributed to an increased turnout among women voters in many states (Bihar,Uttar Pradesh,Punjab,Assam) in recent polls. Not only has the turnout among women increased,in some states,women have outnumbered the men in voting. Provisional turnout figures released by the Election Commission in these states and analysis of the post-poll data conducted by Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) also indicate an increased turnout among women in recent elections,compared to previous assembly elections.
The figures also indicate increased turnouts in urban constituencies in Madhya Pradesh,Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. While one cannot completely deny the role of mobilisation by political parties for the increased turnout both in urban and rural constituencies,the increase in the turnout in urban constituencies is an effect of the better quality of electoral rolls. The electoral rolls in urban constituencies had a sizeable number of ghost voters some of them had shifted house to a nearby locality,some had moved from one locality to another,while others moved to another city and did not bother to get their names deleted from the electoral rolls. An analysis of the electoral rolls suggests that even today,for instance,the ghost voters in Delhis electoral rolls may add up to about 10 per cent,but this number is much lower than in the past. Urban constituencies in all states have fewer ghost voters than in the past. The presence of such ghost voters,who could have never voted in any circumstance,naturally meant a lower turnout. Some of the blame for the poor quality of electoral rolls must to be shared by the Election Commission,but in recent years they have made a concerted effort to clean up the rolls.
Credit is also due to the Election Commission for its pro-active campaign to increase voter participation through various other initiatives. The ECs new initiative,the Systematic Voters Education and Electoral Participation (SVEEP),in all the states that went to polls during the last few years,has helped the commission find out the difficulties faced by common men and women in registering as voters,the reasons for non-voting among various sections and groups,and similar factors that result in lower turnouts. The EC has been prompt in addressing these issues.
In a democracy,higher voter turnouts in elections are a reason for satisfaction. At the same time,it would be an overstatement if increased turnout in the just-concluded assembly elections is read as a sign of greater enthusiasm for polls. The enthusiasm of the people remains more or less the same or is only marginally higher.
Sanjay Kumar is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies,Delhi