Why Indian elections have no shortage of voters

Dr Mukulika Banerjee, author of Why India Votes

Dr Mukulika Banerjee, author of Why India Votes

Why Indian elections have no shortage of voters

23 January 2014

By Sailesh Ram

Why do Indians vote in such great numbers?

The answer is simply because many people see it as akin to a religious experience.

This is what author discovered when she asked Indian voters why exactly they voted and in such high numbers.

In what will be an election year in India, she spoke to Asia House about the possible impact of social media and the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has swept to power in the local administration of Delhi.

The Associate Professor of Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, attending the Jaipur Literature Festival on 18 January, 2014, told Asia House: “Indian voters say it’s almost like a religious experience. They use very similar metaphors to describe it. They said it was like being in the ‘Garbha Grih’ (the sanctum sanctorum of a temple), where it is dark, quiet and alone. It is very profound and feels almost sacrosanct.”

Banerjee’s research for her book, Why India Votes (published in December 2013 by Routledge), was inspired by an Indian National Election Survey 10 years ago.

This uncovered some “startling” findings and prompted her to launch more qualitative work, first in Bengal and then nationally, to get beneath the bald facts of the survey.

“Voting is high among people we least expect it –  the poor, the illiterate, the low caste and the rural, with men and women voting in equal numbers,” she pointed out.

Despite huge disparities in wealth and social status, the vote of an illiterate, poor village woman counts the same as any of India’s many shining billionaires. Banerjee believes this inspires many to vote in India.

“It’s the idea of citizenship,” she said at the Jaipur Literature Festival talk, entitled ‘Why India Votes’.

“One vote counts the same as anyone else’s and it doesn’t matter whether you are at the bottom of the social hierarchy or at the top, your vote counts and it is treated with respect. Citizens are treated as equal.”

She said there was a certain amount of peer pressure, too: in Indian elections, people who vote have their fingers marked so that they cannot vote again.

“If your finger is not marked people will ask, have you voted? It’s so oppressive,” she said in the talk.

She suggested it was easier for people to vote and show they had done so than it was to be harangued by friends and family for not doing so.

Manvendra Singh, Sudhir Choudhary, Mukulika Banerjee and Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014

Manvendra Singh, Sudhir Choudhary, Mukulika Banerjee and Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2014

urprisingly, though, there was little mention of votebank politics in her talk –  a phrase that was coined in India, referring to a practice in which a politician wields influence over a particular community in return for real or imagined benefits. Nor was there reference to the various cash-for votes scandals, reported on in the Indian media, in which some Indian politicians are alleged to have paid voters, especially poor voters and urban slumdwellers, in cash or in kind for their votes. 

One the most surprising developments of recent times in India has been the emergence of the new anti-corruption political party, AAP, also known as the Common Man’s Party.

In recent local elections in Delhi, it won the second highest number of seats just behind the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and is now in control the local administration with the support of Congress.

She called the election of AAP and its current administration in Delhi “a political experiment unfolding before our very eyes”.

Could this have an impact on the national elections?

“I don’t know,” she responded. “What is clear is that they already have had an impact and they were formed only recently.”

She said the party seemed to have struck a chord of dissatisfaction within the electorate.

“People are joining up in droves and clearly people are responding to some sort of deficit,” she said. “People feel the AAP are listening and there is something unrepresented by all the other parties.”

She said the party was not just an urban phenomenon and it had ambitions for the forthcoming General Elections.

“They have launched recruitment drives and there are certain pockets of rural India they are covering where they have volunteers. They have achieved quite a lot already and they have had a tremendous response in the South, so it is quite widespread,” she added.

She said it was going to be very difficult to make any predictions and that more work needed to be done on the possible role and impact of social media on the forthcoming elections.

“Even in 2009, people were texting and receiving texts about other candidates. These were not just saying ‘Vote for us’, but also ‘Do you know the other candidate has done x, y, and z?’ The penetration of the social media has gone up over the last five years. This is unmediated communication. Parties recognise that they can bypass the media which may be biased,” she added.

At the same Jaipur talk, former BJP MP Manvendra Singh said many rural voters had the direct communication app WhatsApp and used it to contact him directly with questions and concerns, even more so than urban constituents did.

The talk at the Jaipur Literature Festival was moderated by Sudhir Chaudhary, editor and business head of Zee news channel.

Dr Mukulika Banerjee will be speaking about democracy in India with Patrick French and Salil Tripathi on 30 April, at Asia House.

This event is part of The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, which takes place from 2 April to 21 May. Ticket details will be available soon.

Sailesh Ram is the founder and editor of www.asianculturevulture.com, an online magazine dedicated to South Asian Arts.  He is the former editor of Eastern Eye (2009-2012) and has had work published in The Independent and is a published novelist and scriptwriter. You can follow him on Twitter@asianculturevul or on Facebook. For more of his stories on the Jaipur Literature Festival go to www.asianculturevulture.com.