Increased voter turnout reflects the enormous hope placed in electoral democracy.
With half of this Lok Sabha election behind us, it is clear that voter turnout has risen, by an average of 10 per cent in the constituencies that have voted so far. While the easy assumption is that higher turnouts reflect a rejection of the incumbent, and favour the biggest challenger, data does not bear this out. For instance, turnout has risen steadily since 2003 in assembly elections, re-electing the party in power more often than forcing it out. There is no way of mapping this Lok Sabha turnout either — it could be a wave for a single party, or a signal that first-time voters are determined to make their presence felt, or something more mundane. Given that turnout is the percentage of eligible voters who cast their ballot, it can increase when the denominator is reduced, that is, when electoral rolls are updated. In urban constituencies in particular, many ghost voters have been deleted from the list, automatically improving turnout figures without reflecting any actual increase in voters.
But either way, it establishes the fact that unlike in the rest of the world, where voter turnout has steadily sloped off, Indians remain strongly engaged with electoral democracy. Having started at 47.5 per cent at the time of Independence, voter turnout now hovers at roughly 60 per cent, and by all accounts, this election is likely to post healthier figures. Data shows that this remains strong at all levels — in fact, assembly and panchayat elections show greater participation than national ones. When voter turnout is disaggregated, it shows that those worse off in social and economic terms have participated with even greater enthusiasm than affluent, urban voters who are less invested in elections and their outcomes — again bucking the global trend. This pressure from below has shaped India’s political economy in highly specific ways.
In fact, even when an agenda is set outside the electoral field, as a civil society agitation or an anti-political impulse, it usually gets incorporated into democratic politics. This is true of all recent upsurges, including the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption mobilisation. The Aam Aadmi Party, born out of that movement, is now trying to tap into the popular disillusionment with politics as usual. Even in regions troubled by insurgency or conflict, elections have become a register of discontents. This institutionalisation of democracy, the fact that elections are the commonsensical way to bid for power, is remarkable — and this massive popular trust should spur governments to do better by the people.