Opinion | Is Polarised Politics Pushing People Out Of The Political Process?

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The recently concluded Phase 1 of the Lok Sabha elections this year recorded a voter turnout of 65.5%, lower than the almost 70% turnout recorded in 2019. This is the first time since 2004 that this number has seen a drop; the overall voting percentage rose in the last three elections in 2009, 2014, and 2019. The numbers thus raise concerns for a thriving democracy like ours.

Indeed, in three states - Assam (where the Citizenship Act seems to have created a charged political atmosphere), Chhattisgarh (which saw 29 Naxals being killed in an encounter in Bastar region three days before polling), and Meghalaya - the voter turnout this year was higher than in 2019. However, the three states that saw the biggest drop are Nagaland (which experienced a boycott in some districts), Manipur (as was expected after last year's violence), and Arunachal Pradesh (which typically sees high voter turnout).

This drop came despite several awareness campaigns run by the Election Commission of India, NGOs, influencers, and the media, which usually result in an organic increase in vote share by 1-1.5%. In today's world, where social media plays a pivotal role in shaping opinions, it is difficult to overlook these campaigns and their impact.

What Led To Low Turnout?

Several factors could account for this drop in turnout. Heat waves are being cited as one of the primary reasons. For instance, in Muzaffarnagar, the temperature at noon on April 19, the day of voting, was 33oC, compared to around 29oC five years ago.

It's also possible that the rhetoric around the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) 'Mission 400' and slogans like "Aayega to Modi Hi" instilled some complacency among BJP supporters. Conversely, it could also be that a lack of enthusiasm among opposition supporters, who might perceive these elections as a foregone conclusion now, kept people away from polling booths.

In Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh, the emergence of caste and community issues may also have contributed to the low turnout numbers. Dissatisfaction within the Rajput community over Union minister Pursushottam Rupala's statement and demands for the withdrawal of his candidature, coupled with discontent within the Jat community due to the farmers' unrest, may have affected voting in these states.

The absence of remote polling mechanisms may have made it difficult for migrant populations in states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra to return to their home states to cast their votes, thus impacting voting in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

Youth And Politics

More notable is the fact that only 38% of young eligible voters chose to register themselves speaks about the disconnect young people feel with contemporary politics and politicians. Politics is often perceived as a dirty word among youngsters today.

Meanwhile, low turnout in urban centres like Chennai highlights significant urban apathy. Various parties, including the DMK and the AIADMK, have led governments in the state over the years. But none has been able to address issues like waterlogging and floods during monsoon. This casts doubts about the political will of these parties as well as the capabilities of their leaders and the bureaucracy.

The increasingly polarised nature of elections, marked by shrill campaigns from political parties, is also alienating a section of voters from the political process. In a landscape divided between pro-government and anti-government factions, there's little space for neutral voters. Moreover, none of the political parties has active apolitical community outreach programmes, and there's a lack of mechanisms for active public participation in governance, even at the local level.

Voter Disconnect?

There's a growing sense of frustration among voters as politicians prioritise rhetoric over addressing real issues affecting the common man. The repetition of the same speeches by the top leadership across parties has only exacerbated this feeling.

Reports indicate that this election has also seen a reduction in ground-level campaigning activities like door-to-door visits, small meetings, and nukkad sabhas, which could possibly be contributing to voter disengagement. Social media discussions also point to an apparent disillusionment of the middle class, which feels that it pays significant taxes but receives inadequate benefits in return, including no access to social security or coverage under schemes like Ayushman Bharat.

It's time for the Election Commission of India, political parties, and leaders to reassess their strategies and re-engage voters in the remaining six phases of the election.

(Amitabh Tiwari is a political strategist and commentator. In his earlier avatar, he was a corporate and investment banker.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author