India is the world’s largest democracy. As per latest statistics courtesy of the Election Commission of India, 814.5 million people are eligible to vote, a number which is 2.5 times the entire population of the next largest democracy in the world, the United States. As such, when a significant percentage of the population does not vote, it really undermines the power of democracy as an institution.
When the first ever democratic elections happened in 1951-52, the voter turnout was 61%. At that time, India was no longer the golden bird it used to be once. More than 90% of the population was poor, the literacy rate was an abysmal 35% and the polling stations were far and few in between. Yet people drove out in huge numbers to cast their votes and feel a little bit empowered. For once, after generations of being a subject to the so called “glorious” Mughals (who are extremely overrated as rulers) and the so called “sophisticated” Britons, the common man had found his voice. Keeping these things in mind, a turnout of 61% was not at all bad, for comparison, the digital social media driven 2012 US Presidential Elections had a 57.5% turnout.
Yet, sometime between 1952 and 2009, the common man lost his voice again. The 2009 elections merely had a 48.74% voter turnout. It has improved since, but the fact remains that low voter turnout has always plagued the country as a democracy. Let us explore why people do not vote as often.
One of the major reasons for people not being able to vote is that their name is not available in the polling list at all. This is a clear example of one of the many administrative failures of the country. People stand in queues all day only to reach the booth and find out that their name isn’t even listed. This means that the percentage turnout at the booth is much higher than the percentage that actually voted. This seriously demotivates people from even going to the booths because, what’s the point?
The second reason for low voter turnout is the controversial practice of booth capturing. Here, armed loyalists of a particular political persuasion capture booths, get rid of the security in a typical dramatic fashion and force anyone who comes to vote for their own party. This raises two problems. One, people do not come out to vote due to fear and two, those who do are forced to vote for a particular party which goes against the very idea of democracy in the first place.
The third reason is lesser known than the previous two, and it is the phenomenon of internal migration. Youth, usually in the age group of 18-28 years is almost always on the move. Take me for example. I was born and brought up in Jharkhand (Bihar before 2000 for you nitpickers), but at the time of the 2014 elections, I used to live in Karnataka. Hence, I could not vote. It happens to a lot of other people too. After around 25-26 years of age, a person is more likely to settle in a particular place, and get everything registered there. This can be seen in the demographic that most people that do vote are middle aged.
To curb this problem of low voter turnout, the most obvious solution is to make people aware of their rights. To make them realize that not everyone in the world has this right to suffrage like they do. To make them realize that it is important to exercise their rights. However, only educating the masses isn’t the plain and simple way out. More needs to be done from the administrative side than the voters side.
For starters, voting should be made more voter friendly. Registrations should be digitized and people should be intimated beforehand if their name is missing from the polling list so that they can take necessary steps to get it on the list. Additionally, said necessary steps should also be easy and free of the bureaucratic bottlenecks that have plagued the system for an eternity.
Proper security measures should be taken to stop booth capturing, especially in the rural areas. This has been stopped to a large extent by the introduction of Electronic Voting Machines (EVM) so that the goons won’t know who exactly you voted for. Polling booths should be more localized and people should have the ability to vote from an alternate booth if need be. This will also mean that college students would be able to vote without any hassle.
This isn’t an easy task though. Let’s not forget that 814.5 million people are eligible to vote. As such, handling individual issues would require a humongous database. Thankfully, the IT infrastructure of the country is pretty stable and seems suited to handle such a large operation. At this stage, I’d like to remain optimistic and hope that these measures will be taken, maybe slowly but steadily, and people will realize the true power of democracy by taking a part in it.