The low turnout, despite the striking array of candidates, reveals a disengaged electorate.
For over two decades, Bangalore’s IT industry leaders have built a compelling story entirely by themselves. Faced with the challenge of operating out of an infrastructure-starved city, they managed to problem solve their way and make both Bangalore and its IT industry globally recognised brands. So when two prominent IT industry executives entered the Lok Sabha contest, saying they would bring the same problem-solving skills to politics, it was expected that their constituents — the urban, the educated and the upwardly mobile — would throng to the voting stations.
What happened on Thursday in India’s technology hub was a shock. While Karnataka’s 28 Lok Sabha constituencies averaged a 67 per cent voter turnout and voting numbers all over the country spiked impressively, the three Bangalore constituencies averaged a drab 56 per cent voting. This justifiably sent the city’s corporate leaders into a rage as they slammed the IT city’s educated voters for their apathy. “Complacence and indifference makes the most educated middle-class voter a far worse species than the most corrupt, scam-tainted politician,” said G.R. Gopinath, founder of India’s first low-cost airline, who lost the 2009 Lok Sabha election as an independent.
It seemed as though Bangalore’s voters were unmoved by the story of successful corporate stars with a clean image giving up their careers to enter public life.
Earlier in the campaign, though, the signs had been different, as the urban educated were visibly involved. In Bangalore South, where Nandan Nilekani, a co-founder and former CEO of Infosys and more recently the architect of the Indian government’s gigantic biometric unique identity project, was contesting, a massive volunteer campaign driven entirely by urban professionals gave the jitters to the campaign team of the incumbent and five-time winner from the BJP, Ananth Kumar. In neighbouring Bangalore Central, Infosys’s former CFO and board member V. Balasubramanian, 50, known as Bala, got similarly enthusiastic backing from urban middle and upper middle class citizens as an Aam Aadmi Party candidate.
In the highly urban-centric Bangalore South and Bangalore Central, educated middle and upper middle class professionals gathered in flash mobs, volunteered to go door-to-door on weekends to canvass for their favourites, danced through the downtown Brigade Road, formed human chains across busy thoroughfares in the city, paid thousands of rupees to attend fundraising dinners and generally gave every indication that the 2014 election was an election they fully owned.
The sluggish turnout on voting day was not even because jaded voters were faced with yet another lacklustre line-up. As experts emphasised time and again, the candidate array in the three Bangalore constituencies was so striking that voters were spoilt for choice. In Bangalore South, for instance, besides Nilekani and Kumar, two worthy and well-known women were in the fray — child rights campaigner Nina Nayak for the AAP and social activist Ruth Manorama for the Janata Dal (Secular).
The presence of Nilekani and Bala, two successful corporate executives in the election arena, itself was a landmark for a country in which high-level professionals have rarely transitioned into a field regarded as loathsome. Their company, Infosys, was the country’s first to adopt a do-it-yourself model to circumvent the challenges of doing business in India. For years, Infosys and other IT companies have dealt with shortcomings in their business environment by devising their own solutions. To get around frequent blackouts, they installed mini power plants. To deal with the lack of public transport systems, they hired their own fleet of buses to transport workers. They set up a private water supply system when the government water supply dried up and recruited an army of private security guards to secure their campuses. The model became an example for a whole generation of new economy companies in India.
“India is not changing at the rate we have to change, and politics is the biggest lever that can make real change happen in society,” Nilekani had said in a pre-poll interview, explaining his motivations. “I want to impact India’s future and its aspirations and I was not able to convince the establishment, so I thought I have to contest the elections,” he had said. His colleague, Bala of the AAP, had said, “People like Nandan and me sat inside Infosys and changed the way companies are run.”
Perhaps the protagonists of a model that skirted the system could not convince enough voters that they could extend their let’s-go-fix-it-ourselves approach to governing India. The inherent inconsistency in their problem solving was that it worked well within a limited environment but could not be extended to a larger public arena with multiple stakeholders like the government and political parties.
The sceptics have found a simpler explanation for the damp voter turnout. For years, Bangalore residents have moaned righteously into their beer about how corruption was ruining the country and how politicians were only promoting self-interest and did not care about the city’s dreadful potholed roads, the water scarcity or its scrappy, unfinished metro system. Observers are guessing that this election day, too, Bangalore’s elite voters took advantage of the four-day weekend and escaped the city’s heat and sat in nearby holiday destinations to gripe about how nothing would change in India. Now companies are saying that only those Bangalore citizens who produced their inked finger as proof at work the next day should be considered for a holiday.
Whatever the analysis, the tables are now turned. Bangalore’s inhabitants have just given its corporate executives and newly minted politicians a chance to play cynical. Its voters had been primed (by civic organisations and companies that launched massive voter registration drives), goaded (by the new-age politicians who urged them to vote) and lured (by businesses which offered discounts on food and drink for those who flaunted their inked fingers) to the voting booth. If they still stayed aloof then it is further proof that upper middle class India prefers the cocoon of its gated enclaves and walled high-rises to engaging with the problems and solutions of the real India outside the gate.