Why Do Indians Vote?

Why Do Indians Vote?featured

This post originally appeared on the India At LSE blog

As voting begins in national elections in the world’s largest democracy, LSE academics Mukulika Banerjee and Sumantra Bose debate why Indians vote, how this election will differ from previous ones, and what other democracies can learn from India.

Mukulika Banerjee: The voter turnouts during the most recent elections in India at the state level were among the highest ever seen. At the national level too, the trend is that turnout is on the rise. The main reason for this is that people see their role in politics as very significant and it often the poorest who are the most enthusiastic voters. While we think elections are about politicians, political parties, and results, voters attach great meaning to their own role in elections. Indians are very aware that without their showing up at polls on election day, there would be no elections or democracy. There’s a complex understanding among Indians of their right to vote—they see it as their duty and right as citizens.

Sumantra Bose: The national turnout in the last Lok Sabha election in 2009 was just under 60 per cent, with wide variation across the states of the Indian Union. So it’s worth explaining incentives to vote at the state level in different parts of the country.

In my home state, West Bengal in eastern India, which is the country’s fourth most populous state, there has been 85-90 per cent voter turnout in state and national elections for over two decades now. This is because West Bengal is one of the most politicised states of India. Most voters there are loyal to one of the two parties that dominate the state’s politics, the Trinamool (‘Grassroots’) Congress and the Communist Party of India-Marxist. People often have staunch partisan affiliations, with families associated with parties for decades. Hence the high turnouts.

Uttar Pradesh in north India, the country’s most populous state, is also a highly politicised state, but in a different pattern. Party politics operates above all on the basis of mobilised caste blocks: the upper castes (Brahmins, Rajputs, Kayasths), various intermediate caste communities such as Yadavs, Jats and Kurmis, Dalits (the lowest castes), etc.  All of these groups have interests at stake, and if any fail to vote in sizable numbers it amounts to giving competing groups a walkover.

In Gujarat, the mid-sized state in western India, for the last decade there has been a dominant politician, Narendra Modi, now the frontrunner to be India’s next prime minister. He arouses strong feelings: adoration among many and revulsion among others. This creates a compelling incentive to vote one way or the other. When Modi won his third consecutive mandate to form the state government in Gujarat in December 2012, the popular vote was polarised: 48 per cent for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and 40 per cent for the Congress, the main opposition party in the state.

Similarly, there are strong state-level dynamics at play in Andhra Pradesh, the largest state in south India. Due to the recently successful campaign to create Telangana as a separate state out of northern Andhra Pradesh, many people there are fired up to vote for the political party that led the statehood movement, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. In the other two regions of Andhra Pradesh, there’s been a huge backlash against the Telangana movement and the Congress party’s central leadership’s decision to sanction the division of Andhra Pradesh, and one beneficiary of the anger is likely to be the YSR Congress, a recently formed regional party that broke away from the state’s Congress party. So people across India have diverse motivations to vote, and they’re all powerful.

Banerjee: People’s motivations to vote can be divided between instrumental reasons and expressive reasons. The instrumentality of patronage, the desire to vote for politicians in order to secure development projects, these are all strong motivators. But there are more qualitative reasons to vote as well. These become apparent when voters say things like, “my vote is my weapon,” or when they use their votes to punish politicians. In our last study on  why Indians vote conducted during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, people told us that they voted against the party they are loyal to because they were ashamed of the party.

Another important expressive reason why people vote is to experience one aspect of democracy that is only apparent in India on voting day—equality. Only during elections are you only judged along with everyone else as a voter. Class, caste and other factors cease to matter, and you can feel equal to your fellow citizens and you are ek din ka sultan, i.e. ‘king for a day’. An extension of this is the sense of belonging that comes from voting; people feel left out if their fingers are not marked with indelible ink and there is tremendous peer pressure that makes them feel like they are reneging on their duties if they don’t vote.

Bose: I agree with Mukulika that election day is the great – if transient – leveller of inequality. Many poor Indians, especially, value the fact that in the voting process all are equal—one citizen, one vote. But interests are also extremely important. In Uttar Pradesh, where the Hindu nationalist BJP is resurgent, it’s just not an option for the nearly one-fifth of the electorate that’s Muslim to sit at home on polling day. They must vote and do what they can to influence the outcome. I expect the Muslim turnout in Uttar Pradesh to be very high in this election.

Click here to read the complete post on the India At LSE Blog.

Mukulika Banerjee is an Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at LSE’s Department of Anthropology and author of “Why India Votes?”

Sumantra Bose is Professor of International and Comparative Politics in LSE’s Department of Government and author of “Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy”

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