Why this apathy?

Two rounds of the general election 2024 have shown a disturbing trend of decline in voting percentage as compared to previous elections. What does this indicate?

Two phases of polling for the Lok Sabha election 2024 are over and the biggest headline after both the rounds is a significant dip in the voting percentage. In the first phase of voting on April 19, 62.37% turnout was recorded, which was a drop of more than seven percentage points than the turnout in the first phase of 2019 elections. Similarly, there has been a decline of six percentage points in the second phase of voting on April 26. The turnout in phase 1 and 2 of 2019 elections was 69.53% and 69.50%, respectively. Nearly 191 of the total 543 constituencies have polled in the first two phases – and mostly all of them reported in dip in the turnout – and if these are any indication, voting percentages in the remaining five phases are unlikely to improve. If the drop is due to the heat, next few days will become hotter and therefore, there could be a further drop in the turnout numbers. The met department has already predicted that the heat wave will unleash in full earnest over the next few days, and it will become more difficult to stand in queues outside the polling booths to cast one’s vote.

What does this indicate? Why are voters not turning out to participate in democracy’s biggest festival? Is it only the heat, which is responsible for this low turnout or it is due the lack of political heat that this election has failed to generate? Or, there are other reasons?

Let us examine all the possible reasons.

Since the beginning of the campaigning, one constant observation of people travelling through constituencies to catch the voters’ pulse is this: is baar chunaav thanda hai (the election is lack luster this time). This could be due to either of the following reasons: Modi magic is on the wane and the government is facing anti-incumbency after ten years of its rule, the Opposition has failed to instill the confidence in its voters that Modi can be defeated therefore voters are apathetic towards voting. Elections are of three kinds – one in which people turn out to elect their leader, second, in which people turn out to reject a leader, and third, in which there is apathy – they neither want to elect a leader nor want to reject a leader so they chose not to turn out. The 2014 election was the election to reject the UPA government. The 2019 election was to elect the decisive Modi government, but 2024 election seem to be the third kind of election, where Modi is not attractive enough, the Opposition has no charisma so there is apathy. It is, however, difficult to say which way the voters, who are turning out despite this apathy, are voting. A clear relationship between turnout and anti-incumbency or incumbency is difficult to establish. Political analysts say when there is apathy, voters vote on caste lines. And, this is a dangerous trend. When there is caste polarization, it becomes difficult to predict the outcome. Prediction of outcome is easier in the first two categories of elections. For example, in 2014, it was evidently clear that UPA government is being voted out; and in 2019, it was crystal clear that the Modi government is riding on the surgical strikes to return to power. But, 2024 is difficult to predict. The only thing which can be said with a considerable amount of surety is that the NDA alliance isn’t getting past the 400-seat target that it was eyeing through the “Abki baar, 400 paar” slogan.

Low voting percentage in the first phase of polling forced Prime Minister to shift gears in the campaigning and he brought the religion angle into his speeches, invoking a 2006 speech of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. PM Modi has also invoked ‘mangalsutra’ and property issues in his speeches but it appears that he has failed to polarize the voters on religious lines. But the turnout drop is expected to considerably impact political calculations across isles. Even the Opposition, the INDIA alliance is also worried about the voting percentage even though publically they are exuding confidence that low turnout is due to the anti-incumbency sentiment.

In the phase 2 of polling, the highest voting percentage was recorded in Tripura (79.66%) and the lowest turnout was in Uttar Pradesh at 54.85%. The turnout in Uttar Pradesh is surprising, given the fact that the construction of the Ram temple was expected to dole out the maximum dividends to the ruling party in the Hindi heartland, especially in UP. UP is the most important state due to the number of parliamentary seats it has, and if the decline in the turnout is any indication towards the lack of a Modi wave, it could cost very dear to the NDA. The BJP has an interesting reading of the polling percentage. The party says people who have not turned out to vote are the voters of the Opposition parties, who thought there was no point in coming to the polling booth when Modi was winning again. Even if this is true, what should worry the BJP is the possibility that it may not win even 303 seats, which it won in the 2019 elections.

Although phases 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 are still a few days away, and Modi could weave his magic around his voters, the trend of the first two phases indicates that India is unlikely to breach the 67% record high turnout in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and may revert to the pre-2019/2014 turnout trend cycle. In the 1999 general election, which were held months after the Kargil war, the turnout was 59.9%. This decline in the following elections – the turnout in the 2004 election was 53.64% and 58.21% in the 2009 elections.

Low turnout is also a poor reflection on the Election Commission, which seems to have failed in its SVEEP activities to motivate voters to turn out in large numbers. And lastly, the onus is on us, the voters, who decide to stay within the safe confines of our homes on the polling day and spend the remaining five years in cursing the government of the day. The Constitution has given us the right to choose our representatives and we should exercise it in full measure.

No matter whom you choose but choose you must.

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