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February 17, 1998


Low voter turnout makes Tamil politicians, pollsters a worried lot

N Sathiya Moorthy in Madras

Politicians are worried, pollsters concerned. If the former class do not know whether the low turnout in the first phase of polling in 14 of Tamil Nadu's 39 Lok Sabha constituencies means a victory or defeat for their party, the latter are not sure whether their predictions on the current election will hold good.

The lowest polling was registered in the Sriperumbudur and Chingleput constituencies. Both had a miserable 40 per cent turnout.

"We are not sure how to interpret this," says a ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader. In the normal course, it would have implied a better score for the political party with a cadre-base and organisation. "But this time around, you have cadre-based parties in both the major coalitions," he adds.

Though no one expected a very high turnout in the absence of any 'poll wave' of the type witnessed in the state since 1967 (particularly in 1967, 1977, 1991 and 1996), none had bargained for a poor 48 per cent average in 14 constituencies.

"To begin with, this means we will have MPs who do not represent the majority of the electorate," says an ideologue of the Tamil Maanila Congress.

The poll percentage in 1996 was 55 against the 61 per cent recorded at the height of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination in 1991, which, in turn, was down by one percentage of what it had been in 1989 when the voters were disillusioned by the squabbling for power within the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam after the death of then chief minister M G Ramachandran. MGR's government had more or less been ineffective during the last three years of his rule, thanks mainly to his ailment and speech impairment.

It is another matter there is nothing on record to show that the state had a ruler who could not rule from 1984 on. Incidentally, the polls that year recorded the highest-ever turnout of 64 per cent, caused mainly by the 'sympathy wave' over Indira Gandhi's assassination and MGR's hospitalisation. Their parties were allies in the state.

"The signals were very much there that voters were getting increasingly disillusioned with the goings-on. But even then we had not anticipated such a low turnout," says a source in the Patali Makkal Katchi. He expressed the confidence that the highest turnout of 59 per cent in Vandavasi would help his party as it had a strong cadre-base. But he is not sure about the similar situation in the even more rural Dharampuri, which recorded 46 per cent polling.

"We cannot hazard any guess, but I think it has more to do with the voter's general apathy towards the political system," says the DMK leader. He, however, was sure that it had 'nothing much to do with the Coimbatore blasts' and the consequent fear psychosis.

"Our government succeeded in restoring the people's confidence in no time. Campaign meetings have begun even in that city," he says.

In Madras, the average turnout in the three city constituencies was down by 17 per cent from the figure for 1996, to a uniform 45 per cent.

Says a pollster: "This can impair the predictions. Though the undecided lot in the published polls thus far was high, it was not enough to indicate such a sea-change. If our community is proved right, so be it. If there are mistakes, we learn from it and provide for such eventualities in future."

With complaints of bogus voting pouring in, there are doubts whether genuine votes are even lower than those recorded.

"I think superstar Rajnikanth's last-minute interview confused some voters," says the DMK source. He is sure that Rajnikanth's 'anti-Jayalalitha' campaign would help the DMK-TMC combine, but to what extent he is not sure.

Elections '98

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