Aversion to politicians makes voters stay away

Aversion to politicians makes voters stay away

By: || Updated: 05 Mar 2012 05:45 AM

THE silly season is
upon us again. The elections are over, we await with bated breath the
announcement of the results, journalists and politicians are busy
polishing their hyperboles in anticipation of the magic moment when the
electronic voting machines begin to disgorge their secrets.

Soon we shall be assailed by a media cacophony about ‘sweeps’ and
‘landslides’ and ‘tsunamis’ — or, perhaps, about their
unexpected absence —accompanied by an even more raucous clamour by
politicians about ‘mandates’ and ‘verdicts’ supposedly given by
the electorate in favour of their respective parties. And why not? Ours is
the largest democracy in the world, and a very large fraction of our
people has just spoken: all we should be doing is celebrate the vox
populi, right?

Wrong. The message that journalists and
politicians, without exception, would be ignoring will be the one conveyed
by the largest fraction of the electorate — those who choose not to
vote. What this 40 per cent, or more, of eligible voters are saying is
that it hardly makes any difference to them which among the parties or
candidates on offer acquires power — certainly not enough of a
difference to make it worth their while to vote. In almost every election
we have had in the 60 years of our existence as a democratic republic,
this huge chunk of the electorate has far outnumbered those who have voted
for any particular party. Yet it has remained voiceless, disenfranchized.
The real mandate in almost every one of our elections, the verdict so
elaborately ignored by our press and our politicos, has been ‘A plague
on all your houses’ or ‘Throw all the rascals out.’
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Exceptions to
this rule

There have been a few, very few, exceptions to this rule. The West Bengal
elections of 2011, which terminated the 34-year-long monopoly of power of
the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the state, produced a voter
turnout of 85 per cent. The Tamil Nadu elections of 2011 and the West
Bengal elections of 2006 both witnessed over 80 per cent participation
rates. These were instances of political polarization intense enough to
persuade most voters that the composition of their rulers really mattered.
However, only in Tamil Nadu 2011 did the winning alliance receive more
than 50 per cent of the votes polled. And in no case did a majority of the
entire electorate endorse the winner.

Picture at the Centre
more dismal

If we shift our focus from the states to the Centre, the limited nature of
the support provided by the electorate to the powers-that-be becomes even
more starkly evident. No party or coalition in our entire electoral
history has ever secured a majority of the votes polled — leave alone
the endorsement of the majority of the electorate. Even Rajiv Gandhi, in
the ‘sympathy wave’ election of 1984 following the assassination of
Indira Gandhi, got 400 parliamentary seats with a vote share of less than
half. At least, however, 32 per cent of the electorate (49 per cent of a
turnout of 63.5 per cent) sympathized with him — a level of public
support higher than that enjoyed by any prime minister before or since.
What is inescapable though is the fact that never in the annals of the
republic have we given a ‘mandate’ (in the sense of the approval of at
least half of the eligible voters) to any person, party or coalition.

rhetoric typically overlooks such indigestibles. Consider, for instance,
the supposed ‘sweep’ of the Bahujan Samaj Party in the assembly
elections of Uttar Pradesh that led to the supposed Mayavati ‘mandate’
of 2007. In fact, the BSP secured 30 per cent of a voter turnout of 46 per
cent, amounting to less than 14 per cent of the electorate.

relatively narrow popular base on which legislative majorities — and
governments — can be constructed is a fact that has profound
constitutional implications. We consider our Constitution to be
sacrosanct: unlike in Britain, where the legislature can even abolish
democracy by a simple act of parliament, our Constitution can be amended
only by special procedures requiring a two-thirds majority of the members
of parliament present and voting. Ours is supposedly a ‘rigid’
Constitution. Yet, since the Congress secured a two-thirds majority of Lok
Sabha seats in the general elections of 1952, 1957, 1962, 1971, 1980 and
1984 — without ever winning 50 per cent of the popular vote — it has
had the ability to bend the Constitution to its will. Little wonder then
that in the 62 years of its existence, the Constitution has been amended
96 times — far more Constitutional amendments, in fact, than budgets —
and none with the endorsement of a majority of the electorate.

of course, is not unique in its rate of electoral abstentions. In the
presidential elections of the United States of America or in the general
elections of the United Kingdom, though voter turnout is somewhat higher
as a proportion of the number of registered voters, the ratio of turnout
to voting-age population has rarely exceeded 60 per cent. However, in
these countries, voter absenteeism has generally been explained as the
voter’s reaction to what has been described as ‘policy convergence’.
Parties typically seek the middle ground: they tailor their policies to
the tastes of the median voter out of a recognition that extreme positions
would alienate the more numerous mainstream. But all parties engaged in
this exercise risk a loss of identity: they become indistinguishable,
voters become indifferent about choosing between them and opt therefore to
avoid the bother of voting. The process is set off by the electoral
ambitions of the major parties: each reinvents itself in the hope of
capturing power.

In India, however, our complex and intensely
pluralistic social structure gives rise to a host of parties that
primarily represent sectional interests. They are based on specific
loyalties — of caste (Bahujan Samaj Party, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya
Lok Dal, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Lok Janshakti Party), of region (Dravida
Munnetra Kazhagam, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Telugu Desam
Party, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Shiv Sena,
Trinamul Congress, Biju Janata Dal, Shiromani Akali Dal), of religion
(Bharatiya Janata Party, Indian Union Muslim League, Majlis-e-Ittehadul
Muslimeen) — and cannot, therefore, realign themselves without losing
their core support.

Regional parties can, of course, aspire to
rule their own states and to tune their policies to the preferences of the
median voter in their states without undermining their electoral base.
None of them, however, can hope to achieve power at the Centre without
significantly widening its base of support — an exercise that the old
party faithful finds always distasteful and generally unacceptable. The
compulsions of capturing and holding on to power are usually trumped by
the necessity of retaining one’s most loyal followers — as L.K. Advani
and the BJP top brass discovered on the occasion of the former’s
ill-fated visit to Pakistan and his famous speech on Jinnah. But if
parties retain their innate separateness, the voter is unlikely to react
with apathy (as he often does in Britain or in the US on account of policy
convergence). The Indian voter’s abstention is not an act of apathy but
of aversion. He simply does not like any of the items on the menu and
would prefer therefore to go without.

Is there any solution to a
problem so fundamental? A few constitution theorists have suggested making
voting compulsory — a ‘solution’ that suppresses the symptoms of the
disease while doing nothing to cure it. A better strategy might be to give
voters the right of rejection. Perhaps if parties know that they can no
longer hope to win by default (to win, that is, because other parties and
candidates are even worse), they will, at last, begin to focus on good
governance and better candidates.

The author is professor at the
School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

-The Telegraph, Calcutta

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