Participatory upsurge of the oppressed

Print edition : November 13, 1999

WITH the country having witnessed five general elections in 10 years, it is not surprising that one hears about "voter fatigue". The media have often carried reports about an electorate that is disenchanted, disinterested and simply apathetic. However, the voter turnout figures for the September-October elections do not quite support such a reading. Despite there having been four mid-term elections, the overall voter turnout in this decade has been no different from that in earlier decades. In fact, an analysis of the facts about people who vote and those who do not has shown a participatory upsurge of the lower orders in this decade. The sections of society that were previously been kept outside political power - backward classes, Dalits, women, tribal people - are participating much more in the electoral process. Although the urban, educated elite is experiencing depoliticisation, the upsurge of the lower orders has kept the overall voting levels fairly high.

Since the turnout patterns have been discussed in the first part of this series ("The Turnout Factor", Frontline, November 5), here the focus is on attitudes and behaviour other than voting. About one-third of the respondents took some or a great deal of interest in the campaign in this round of elections, which is not very different from the level of voter interest in the 1971 or 1996 elections. It is a matter of concern that two-thirds of the electors took no interest at all in the elections; yet it may not be correct to say that this indifference is a new phenomenon. In any case, it does not imply that the ordinary citizen does not value his or her vote. The proportion of citizens who feel that their votes make a difference to the way in which the country is run rose from 48 per cent in 1971 to 59 per cent in 1996 and further up to 63 per cent in 1999.

A look at the various participatory activities confirms this picture. The proportion of voters who attended at least one election meeting was higher in 1999 than in 1996, though it is a little lower than the figure for the previous elections. The percentage of respondents who were visited by a canvasser also increased in the 1999 elections as compared to the previous two elections, perhaps because the campaign period this time was much longer. The number of those who actually took part in the election campaign on behalf of a candidate was much higher than ever before.

Notwithstanding widespread disenchantment with political parties, the percentage of voters who feel close to a political party remains as high as in 1971, and has actually registered an increase since 1996. It seems that the proliferation of smaller parties, which often have specific social groups as their support bases, has tended to draw greater numbers into developing enduring partisan identifications.

It must, however, be pointed out that in comparative terms the level of party identification in contemporary India is much lower than in Western democracies. Each election witnesses a very high level of exchange of votes across party lines, leaving a relatively small proportion of 'loyal voters'. Not much has changed in the 1990s in this respect.

Finally, if one looks at party membership, the most advanced form of political identification, the survey reveals a consistent increase in reported membership. The proportion of those who report to being a member of a political party in 1999 is more than double that recorded in 1971. This compares favourably with Western democracies. While the public, no doubt, has reservations about politicians and political parties, the Indian passion for politics is far from dead.

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