The bad news is that the numbers look disappointing! The good news is that they conceal more than they reveal.
It is true that the phase-wise 2019 voter turnout presents a southward trend. There has been a progressive decline so far, though, the final phase is due on May 19.
The sixth phase of the Lok Sabha election covering 59 constituencies in six states and a union territory registered a turnout of 63.48 percent compared to 63.37 percent in 2014.
At 69.5 percent, the polling in Phase 1 has been the highest so far. In Phase 2, the turnout was 69.44 percent while it dropped to 68.40 per cent in Phase 3.
The drop sustained in Phase 4 with voting turnout pegged at 65.51 percent. In Phase 5, the turnout was nearly 65 percent.
It would be naïve to dismiss this as a statistical perspective but reading too much into it would cloud the ground reality.Let us count the big pluses.
An independent study by State Bank of India (SBI) released on May 2 at the end of the fourth phase of polls predicted that 1 percent more voting from current trend could witness the highest voting turnout post-1947. States like Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala where the elderly population is higher than the national average has also witnessed an increase in voter turnout on an average by 1.8 percent. Women voters are also an important stakeholder. There is a wide expectation that cumulatively the gender gap in voting might actually either disappear or become modest this election. It is a big achievement that should reinforce our faith in the festival of democracy. Last general election the gap stood at 1.5 percent. The revealing feature has been the increased voter turnout in some of the centres such as Mumbai. Mumbai registered a voter turnout of 55.1 percent, which is the highest for the city since 1989. The feat becomes remarkable, if the long weekend of three days, which otherwise is used for holidays, is taken into account. Vote Campaign
Soumya Kanti Ghosh, chief economist at SBI, who authored the report, expressed confidence that India would end up improving the voter turnout over 2014 and that the gender gap might be wiped out this time. He sees the participation of youth, women and senior citizens as a big plus this election.
This election has actually been like never before. For the first time perhaps, there has been an extensive and continuous campaign by multiple stakeholders such as the Election Commission, Government, India Inc and the Civil Society at large to improve voter turnout in the country. The media amplification has been stupendous.
There are obvious gaps yet. If south Mumbai has improved, south Bangalore continues to be a laggard. Delhi too has been a tad disappointing. The heat might have been a factor. Being a Sunday too might have added to the lethargy.
Clearly, while we might end up improving briefly over 2014 Lok Sabha election, the stated Election Commission target would definitely be missed. In an interview (on the eve of first phase polling) to Network 18’s multi-city multi-language #ButtonDabaoDeshBanao voter awareness campaign, the CEC Sunil Arora said he hoped for 100 percent but was expecting 75 percent voter turnout.
Bridging The Gap
Is there room to improve the campaign specs to get the reluctant voters to lend muscle to the democratic process? “How Low Turnout Is Turned Around: International Best Practice in Voter Turnout Campaigns, “a WPP Government and Public Sector Practice report, throws a few pertinent pointers.
In the report, Penn Schoen & Berland’s Matt Carter compares voter turnout campaigns with commercial product marketing. “To sell a car, we communicate the car’s unique proposition and the values of the brand. To raise voter turnout, we need to engage in more than just a sales conversation – we need to spark ideas,” the report opined.
Are we sparking enough ideas? Piyush Pandey, India’s ad guru, is quoted in the report as saying, “People don’t want to be told. They want to be engaged.” Messaging is a challenge given the hugely heterogeneous nature of the electorate.
Commending the efforts of all stakeholders including the media in upping the pitch, Pandey told
CNBC.com that the need of the hour is to sustain the campaign rather than make it seasonal. “A seasonal approach makes it transactional rather than value based.” There are elections around the corner in India and fresh voters are joining the march of the democracy and that necessitates the need for a long term education strategy.
Campaigns can ring in awareness but is a regulatory framework a feasible solution to bridge the gap between the registered voters and those who actually go out and vote?
Given the push for improving voter turnout, there is a raging debate over either incentivizing or dis-incentivizing the process of voter participation as in some countries abroad. Is it recommended for India?
Vote For Regulation?
In India, there is no pull factor except the social contract when it comes to going out to vote. The push factor happens on account of a pitch by all relevant stakeholders to draw the voter to the polling booth. But there is no guarantee that it always works.
If participating in national elections is about right of citizenship, does the call go beyond a voter’s civic responsibility?
Is there room to consider compulsory voting in India (not that it is a panacea to all ills)? The truth is that it might actually lead to a few more ills while possibly improving the turnout. If voting is a duty then it has to be compulsory is the common refrain of those who favour the proposition. Some countries go as far as to impose sanctions on non-voters.
Among the first countries that introduced mandatory voting laws were Belgium in 1892, Argentina in 1914 and Australia in 1924. Venezuela and the Netherlands, which at one time in their history practised compulsory voting, have since abolished it.
The verdict on compulsory voting isn’t out yet. Simply because the idea has its cons too. It militates against the fundamental idea of democracy where freedom is guaranteed.
Time, therefore, to go back to ring in the pull factor where a voter is educated, both, about the value of the vote and the difference it can make.Meanwhile, stay tuned to the #ButtonDabaoDeshBanao campaign.