Rediff Logo News Star News Banner Find/Feedback/Site Index
February 28, 1998


The Rediff Election Special/ Shalabh Kumar

The 50% Democracy

Voter turnout in this general election has been similar to the last three. Both the first phase and the second phase recorded an official voter turnout of 55%. So, one of the most crucial elections of our democratic life will be decided by the choice of around 50% of the people. There is something wrong about a democratic system which gives executive power to a political group with popular support of around 15% of the voting population. (The total vote of the largest party is expected to be around 30% of the votes polled.)

Those who vote probably understand the power of the vote. It is the other half which intrigues me. Like the dog which did not bark in Sherlock Holmes' Hound of Baskervilles, the other 50% is as significant to the electoral verdict. To understand that, we will need to understand their reasons for not voting.

Over the years, one has heard any number of reasons for not voting. The first is the simple factor of non-availability -- being out of town, etc. Among all the reasons, it is probably the only legitimate one, even if it reflects a less-than-committed attitude towards one's franchise. It is, in numerical terms, the least important of the reasons. Procedural problems account for some individuals failing to cast their vote. While much has been done to make the election process efficient (thanks to T N Seshan), it is far from being a smooth operation.

In the 1996 election, I had found my name struck off the voting list, without any reason or notice. Since the list seems to be available for verification only to party functionaries before the election, there is little that anyone can do in such a situation. I could not vote. I am sure such incidents would account for some of the people not voting.

Unruly incidents, or at least the threat of these incidents, is a big reason for low voter turnout. Electoral campaigns attract the 'goonda' elements of our society like vultures to a honey-pot and, on voting day, all these guys gravitate to the electoral booths. While the extreme cases of rigging and booth capturing, etc, get reported, we will never know how many people could not vote because they were not allowed to, either by direct coercion or by the fear of coercion. Not all booths are captured, not all constituencies violence-prone. Yet, the fear of such incidents keeps a number of people away from the polling booths.

There are some people, notably in the big cities, who do not vote because they simply do not care. Democracy works on a balance of rights and responsibilities. Every eligible citizen who chooses not to exercise the franchise is abdicating responsibility. A democratic system is as effective as the commitment of the individuals to it. By abdicating this fundamental responsibility, these individuals who 'do not give a damn' are as actively subverting the system as someone who resorts to direct sabotage.

Yet, if the above were the only reasons for the low voter turnout, I would not be writing this piece. These are problems which can be fixed. A zealous Election Commission can make a substantial improvement in the maintaining of correct voting lists as well as in the conduct of the elections. Mass media communication exhorting people to vote, building pride in being a voter, etc, would help increase voter turnout. However, they will not solve this widespread problem of low voter turnout -- the uniformly low voter turnout across the country is a symptom of a much deeper malaise.

Voter apathy -- voter indifference to the electoral process -- is the term given to it. A substantial part of the populace does not vote because they have lost faith in the electoral system. They do not believe that the system is meant for them, does anything for them or represents them. Not voting is a way of showing their disgust with the system.

Abstention from voting is an accepted democratic practice. If you do not like any of the choices offered, you have the choice of not selecting any -- this is a fundamental democratic way. It is also a practice available in most democratic forums. Our legislators have it, most democratic organisations have it, even opinion polls allow it. Our electoral system, however, allows it only by default. It clubs those who want to abstain with those who choose not to exercise their franchise, never mind the fact that they are very different electoral messages.

Approximately 50% of the electorate is clearly making the choice of not selecting from the choices offered. Low voter turnout is not a statistic, it is one of the most important messages of our electoral system. The electorate is disgusted with the system as it exists today -- they do not want to participate in it.

The option of abstention needs to be given legitimacy in our system. If the voter had the option of not selecting anyone of the candidates in a constituency and if the selection of a candidate was subject to a certain percentage of the total number of voters, the current system would acquire a more representative nature. If no candidate got the requisite number of votes, it would still reflect the will of the people. If the incidence of 'no selection' was widespread, it would clearly be a verdict of the people on the system and its practitioners, as good as a referendum on the issue.

A 'no selection' option in the ballot would be a pre-requisite to building greater participation of the electorate. The voter confidence in the electoral process has, however, been mauled by the current system. A massive programme is needed to build voter interest and participation. We need a mass media communication program to build pride in the act of voting and being a voter. The programme also needs to communicate the necessity of voting -- every vote counts towards determining the kind of governance that country will have.

To build voter turnout, we could for the next couple of elections institute an incentive or fines system. Incentive for voting, fines for non-voting. Combined with the communication programme, this would be a powerful way of getting people to participate in elections.

It would be interesting to hear the silent dog bark.


Tell us what you think of this report