Civil Society Rajeev Gowda

Notes from the campaign trail – 2. The Mystery of the Urban Voter


This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang, but a whimper

T. S. Eliot—The Hollow Men

Rather than the end of the world, Eliot could well have been describing the high decibel, star-studded campaigns by corporates and civil society to get people to vote. These initatives included Tata Tea’s Jaago Re advertisements, various NGO’s voter education drives, Times of India’s Lead India self promotion, and the “Shut up and vote” rock concerts that tried to make voting “cool!”

But now that cities like Bangalore and Mumbai have voted, it’s clear that a substantial portion of urban India’s voters are indeed hollow men. They are unable to execute that simple act of citizenship called voting. These cities recorded a voter turnout of less than 50 percent. Given the intensity of public desire for political change after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, and given that large numbers of people had actually stepped into the streets to vent their opinions, the low voter turnout in the Maximum City is puzzling—and downright disappointing.

Being both a pundit and a politician, I’m trying doubly hard to make sense of voter apathy in urban India. As a contrast, look at the voter turnout in Mangalore (which has both urban and rural segments, and a relatively educated and politically aware citizenry). There voter turnout was in excess of 70 percent. This reiterates the fact that, historically, rural voters turn out in larger numbers. Why the difference? We’re all Indians. We’re all subject to a generally similar cast(e) of characters when it comes to candidates. Do our country cousins know something that we don’t?

Let’s begin by being charitable to the urban voter. This year the media reported numerous instances of people turning up at the polling booth, only to find that their names were not on the electoral rolls. Worse, people who had verified that their names were on the rolls a few months ago were greeted with a “DELETED” mark stamped across their names—typically without the due process of notice, etc. Perhaps the voter turnout would have been higher by 5 percent plus if these errors did not occur.

Another difference between rural and urban areas is mobility. Rural people are more rooted in one location and there are always neighbors to fill in the details when officials show up to prepare voters lists. Given that people do move a lot in urban areas, some percentage of people no longer reside at their old homes and are thus erroneously included in the voters list. If we factor this in, we get to reduce the denominator by 5-10 percent. Overall, then, turnout goes up by a few notches.

But this hides the larger problem. Which is that urban educated voters have seceded from the world of politics. For them government is a mere hindrance. Something to reluctantly pay taxes to. Something to berate for poor infrastructure. Something to stay as far away from as possible.

As for politicians, they have become the new “untouchables.” Generally there is a class, and possibly a caste divide between the social background of political leaders and that of the educated middle and upper classes of urban India. This is probably accentuated when it comes to people working in private sector and multinational companies.

But in recent years, enough educated people have launched NGOs that dramatically discovered democracy. And many idealistic youngsters flocked to these groups so that they could engage with the political system in a constructive, but non-partisan way.

There’s the catch! Everyone wants to be Election Commission. Everyone wants to quiz candidates, organize debates, take the high moral ground of political neutrality. Nobody wants to jump on a candidate’s bandwagon because doing so would deflower them of their precious political neutrality. Thus the limited agenda of urging people to just vote. To exercise a right that untold numbers of freedom fighters have been martyred for.

That is just not enough. Voting is an activity that naturally leads to free riding. You’ll get an MP whether you vote or not. Many are apathetic because they feel that their votes don’t make a difference. Many vote only because of citizen duty, or because they buy the argument that it’s not right to question the MP if you didn’t vote. This time, the media campaigns also added a heavy dose of guilt. A friend’s status message asserted: if you don’t have ink on your finger you’re a blot on the system! Yet none of these efforts had much impact. There’s something still missing.

What’s missing is Politics. Politics in the sense of an idealistic quest for a better world, for a just society. Politics as a cause that’s larger than oneself.

If you engage with Politics, you’re part of a mission. Then voting is automatic. Look at volunteers who work with candidates. Observe their fire, their passion, their willingness to sacrifice, to work night and day on innovative ways to carry their chosen leader to victory. Observe some activists’ desire to actively support an independent so that they can make a statement or signal their desire for change. All of them will be ready to turn the world upside down for the cause. Because they believe. Because they’re inspired.

That’s the real challenge. For political leaders and NGOs alike. To come up with causes that inspire people to jump out of their armchairs to engage with politics and campaigns. To connect with the hearts and minds of citizens in a way that leads to a tsunami of political participation across the land.

It’s certainly possible. Some months ago, when I led a series of simultaneous protests across Bangalore against attacks on women and attempts at moral policing, the response was tremendous. College students and IT professionals, the jeans clad and the long-skirted, all came out to demonstrate their anger and disgust. All I did was provide the platform—the cause did the rest.

In its own way, the Mangalore turnout may be explained by the sharp polarization that the constituency has witnessed in the last couple of decades. And more recently, the attacks on women in a pub and the attacks on churches have probably galvanized people on either side of the political divide to come out to support their point of view. Both sides are out there motivated by a cause, whether it’s an idealistic yearning for communal harmony or a sado-masochistic desire to browbeat minorities.

In the US, Barack Obama figured this out. He managed to get people involved with his campaign, to contribute funds, to turn out in larger numbers. We need to find someone like him, or a cause like his. Then low voting turnouts will be history.

Note: A version of this article appeared on the Edit page of DNA’s Bangalore edition today.

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