People seem to have realised that politics is too serious a business to be left only to politicians
Jagdeep Chhokar | December 16, 2013
The assembly elections in five states spread over October to December will be remembered for two things. The first in chronological order is the high voter turnout in four of the five states, and the second is the spectacular debut of the Aam Aadmi Party. This piece is about the first one.
The voting percentage in Chhattisgarh increased from 71 in 2008 to 77.64, in Madhya Pradesh from 69.6 to 72.59, from 66.5 to 75.21 in Rajasthan, and from 56.7 to 66.04 in Delhi, with the increase ranging from about 3 percent to around 10 percent. These are quite significant increases. The questions that concern us are: What are the factors at work compelling or inspiring people to use their right? What is turning them to ‘politics’? How is Indian democracy getting deepened? What does this trend mean for polity?
The most commonly mentioned reason for the increase is said to be the good work done by the election commission (EC) in two distinct ways. One is the cleaning up of the electoral rolls by removing non-existent voters (including those who have moved away from the given addresses) and adding new voters who have moved in. Special voter registration drives were also undertaken in colleges and universities to register first-time
voters who recently attained the age of voting.
The other initiative of the EC has been the SVEEP (‘systematic voter education and electoral participation’) programme. The comprehensive SVEEP plan included the following:
“(i) Situation analysis: identification of locations with low voter registrations.
(ii) Developing strategies for facilitation of voters’ registration.
(iii) Creating a chain of partnerships with government and non-government agencies, media, etc for reaching out to the communities.
(iv) Linkages with educational institutions.
(v) Due feminisation and youth slant to the outreach programme.
(vi) Launch of a well-considered multi-media campaign.
(vii) Shared successful experiences and outreach material.
(viii) At least two regional/local icons to be identified by each state/UT and promotional messages for registration may be prepared for using them.”
Some of the organisations that the EC partnered with are the All India Radio (AIR), Doordarshan (DD), private media, NYKS, NSS, NCC, Bharat Scouts and Guides and all educational institutions, various government departments, field-level agencies, and “credible and politically neutral civil society organizations”. The EC, through the state chief electoral officers (CEOs) of various states, also put out fairly big and colourful advertisements in prominent media publications and also outdoor hoardings exhorting people to vote and to realise the importance and value of their votes.
The SVEEP wing of the EC started functioning in late 2009 but the trend of increasing voter turnout has been in existence before that. Former chief election commissioner Dr SY Quraishi is reported to have said, in the context of the recent assembly elections, that voter turnout had increased consistently in the last 21 elections held in the country. One of the leading election researchers in the country, Professor Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, recently wrote, “Of the 24 assembly elections held in different states in recent years (excluding these five assembly elections), turnout increased in 19 assembly elections…Clearly, the recent increase in turnout in four states only reflects a continuation of the trend.” [Also read the views of the chief election commissioner and Sanjay Kumar’s interview in the following pages.]
Being a student of human behaviour over the last several decades, I have no doubt that the question ‘Why do people behave the way they do?’ is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to answer. The same applies to the question ‘Why do voters behave the way they do?’ Nonetheless, one does attempt to respond to the question.
In that spirit, one possible reason for people to vote in increasing numbers is the increasing political and electoral awareness amongst citizens that has been happening very gradually but definitely over the last several years. One of the fundamental reasons for this increasing awareness has been the increasing arrogance of the entire established political class.
Over and over, elected politicians have said that once elected, they are free to do whatever they like till the next elections. Political parties of all hues have been guilty of this arrogance wherever and whenever they have been in power. The primary reason for this, of course, is the complete lack of internal democracy in all existing political parties, which makes candidates beholden to those who distribute largess in the form of “tickets” to candidates, which has to happen before voters can vote for them. This lack of allegiance to the electorate, the arrogance of the elected, and instances of repeated mis-governance or lack of governance have combined to create a sense of despondency among the citizens/voters which, over time, led to a strong desire to see a change in how the country and the states were being governed. These are some of the factors that are possibly motivating people to come out to vote in increasing numbers, not necessarily ‘compelling’ or ‘inspiring’ them.
One factor that seems to have energized, empowered, and even emboldened common folk is the Right to Information Act. Ever since it came into effect in 2005, it has, gradually but definitively, increased people’s confidence in themselves and made them confident and more assertive in demanding services from the government rather than being passive recipients of favours granted by a paternalistic government.
Another factor seems to be the almost continual unearthing of larger and larger scams over the last few years. Scams have come to light in governments led by political parties of all hues. This led to disenchantment with the entire political class or establishment in the minds of large sections of the population. This was exacerbated by the blatant denials of wrongdoings and attempts at blaming those who unearthed the scams.
What seems to be ‘turning people to politics’ is the usurpation of politics by the so-called professional politicians with the almost complete exclusion of common, non-political, people. To paraphrase the well-known saying “War is too serious a business to be left only to the Generals”, people seem to have realized that politics is too serious a business to be left only to the politicians. People are now trying to take back politics from the politicians.
The impact of the above developments is that more and more so-called ordinary people are becoming more conscious of not only that there is something wrong in the way the country is governed but also that they must and can do something about it. This is what deepening of democracy is about.
Role of civil society
Civil society has played a definite role in the evolution of democracy in the country. One singular achievement has been the enactment of the Right to Information Act. It has also made active interventions leading to political and electoral reforms. It has also co-opted two pillars of the state, the judiciary and the media, in its quest for reforms from time to time. It has even led to the formation of two political parties which are active players in the electoral arena. It however continues to be a motley crowd but then that is its basic nature.
All this is leading to a gradual maturity of the Indian polity. India was practically a single-party state for the first 30-35 years. It was only after the late 1970s that it started the process of learning about real multi-party democratic functioning. The learning curve is still on. Democracy is not an easy form of governance, particularly given the size, complexity, and diversity of India. As the cliché goes, ‘democracy is not a destination, it is a journey’, it is safe to say that India is well on its way in this journey and that it is firmly set on this path.
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