Why Do Indians Vote?

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Why Do Indians Vote?

| Updated: June 3, 2024 13:56

Did they vote because they felt if they stayed home, governments would be even less responsive to their anxieties over price rises and unemployment?

In April 2024 in the city of Surat in Gujarat, a group of middle-aged businessmen expressed to me their deep sadness that their election had been cancelled and a winner declared before a single vote was cast. This was puzzling as they were avowed Bharatiya Janata Party supporters and their candidate had been declared the automatic winner after his opponent was disqualified.

But they explained that while they recognised that their local party had wanted to ‘gift’ their leader a guaranteed win long before the national results, it was not right that they had been robbed of the chance to vote. A young daughter had been excited about her first experience of a polling booth. And they had all wanted their individual votes to count towards a result. 

So, the result was clearly not everything – allowing people to participate in the process and outcome was also important.

As voting is now complete across India and we wait in suspense for the results, this is a good moment to reflect on the classic question I posed over a decade ago: why do Indians vote?

Turnouts have risen with each Indian election in past decades and as the Surat example shows, they do not vote to simply to return a candidate but also because they like to vote. So why do Indians bother, when their counterparts in many other democracies choose to stay apathetically at home?

Sacred duty

I explained this enthusiasm by arguing that in India, elections had become something of a sacred duty to which many felt an inviolate commitment. Then, the Election Commission of India was the most respected public institution in India, elections were mostly free and fair contests and it cost no one anything to exercise their fundamental right to make their voice heard – so ‘why wouldn’t you vote?’ people would say to me incredulously.

I showed that for poorer citizens, voting held special value and that they voted in such large numbers because the polling booth was the only space and moment in the country where briefly they could experience genuine political equality and social mixing, where caste and rank could not allow queue jumping, with each voter treated the same by officials and each vote having equal worth. It was a day when, no matter how poor, they were recognised as full members of the country, as citizens. To miss out on the experience of such dignity and self-assertion thus causes a feeling of great loss.

Over 25 years of research, I encountered many who were inconsolable if they had been unable to vote and could not brandish the coveted stigmata of the inked finger as a symbol of their participation.

But 2024 seems different.

The Election Commission has been systematically weakened in recent years and at every stage has looked less and less credible. From the moment the schedule was announced questions have been asked about why seven phases were needed this time, why they were not being wrapped up by mid-May as in previous years to avoid the hottest weeks of the year in June, and why there were inordinate delays in releasing turnout figures once polling began. As the campaign progressed, voters wondered why flagrant violations of the basic norms of the Model Code of Conduct went unreprimanded. Most worryingly, figures revealed that for the first time in decades, in nearly a third of the 573 constituencies, turnouts had dropped, amid widespread evidence of voters from minority communities being suppressed. 

So Election 2024 in many respects looks and sounds like Indian elections do – but it doesn’t smell right, and doesn’t feel right to many voters. After nearly 75 years the Indian electorate has a shared collective understanding of what a fair and well-conducted election should look like – and has a clear grasp that this one has failed to be that on several counts. 

So why have so many voted nonetheless? Why did they not just stay home and boycott this sorry and unfair election? No doubt they were continuing to discharge their civic duty and sacred participation. But we can ask ourselves whether they have also been motivated by an ever more urgent need to make their own honest voices heard amidst the cacophony of false and hostile messaging? And because the lavish sums of money spent on election campaigns jar with their own increased poverty? And did they vote because they felt if they stayed home, governments would be even less responsive to their anxieties over price rises and unemployment? Or because even heroes, can cross a red line and need to be cut down to size sometimes? Did they turn out because their humble vote expressed a truth, tolerant and secular, that the shameful utterances of the government did not? Did Indians vote to help save India’s constitution and constitutional morality?

Peaceful change

And did they vote, ultimately, because elections are the only guaranteed way to bring about change peacefully?

If elections are indeed sacred to Indians, it is because they have drawn their understanding of them from their non-political lives, where one learns to do the right thing without thinking about it too much, such as starting new account books on Diwali or performing wuzuis before saying namaz. But the feature of rituals is also that they are repeated over and over again, and one gains familiarity with the basic grammar of the ritual. So, while gestures may be repeated automatically, participants also know immediately when the rules have been changed. Rings are never exchanged before vows are taken in a church wedding and no Sikh will partake of prasad before first bowing their head to the Granth Sahib.

After seven decades of elections, Indians know what elections and outcomes should look like given what they have seen and heard. To tell them otherwise would be perilous. 

This article was published on The Wire on June 3, 2024.

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