The voice of the non-voter: why some 264 million did not queue up

Photo: rajkumar1220, Flickr CC

The 2014 Lok Sabha elections was special for more than one reason. The largest democracy in the world fielded the highest number of candidates to the largest electorate in history. On an average, more than 15 candidates in 543 Parliamentary seats tried to convince their electorate from among India’s 815 million eligible voters to attest their candidature. And for the first time, Indians could also use NOTA, or the None Of The Above option.

While 66.38 per cent — 551 million — exercised their democratic right across the 190,000 polling booths across India, and 32 of the 35 Indian states and Union Territories saw a higher turnout than in 2009, 33.62 per cent Indians did not vote.

That is 264 million voters — six times the population of UK — who did not get inked.

The top performers in the elections were the smaller states: Nagaland (88.6 per cent turnout), Lakshadweep (86.8 per cent) and Tripura (84.3 per cent). And in Goa, Punjab, Chandigarh and 13 more states and Union Territories, the female turnout was higher than that of males.

As for the most populous states, many performed poorly. In Bihar, 43.5 per cent did not vote. And from among the 200 million voters of Uttar Pradesh, 41.4 per cent did not — or could not — vote.

Project India reporters spoke to voters in several constituencies to get a sense of why they did not cast their votes — and what they would like in future elections. Here’re some voices:

Somipoem Keshing, Manipur: ‘It’s all a big scam’

Indian election is a big scam. Most people are simple-minded and they are easily influenced by politicians hunting for votes. Democracy is a beautiful system, but it is easily twisted by political strategy. Democracy says a government for the people.  Unfortunately, that is not what happens. The government is monopolised by the powerful candidates. The rich candidate comes to power again and again. The poor remain poor – again and again. There is a deep contradiction between the real politician and the politician who appears on your TV screen. They are not the same. It’s all a big scam.

Komal Sheth, Pune: ‘An online voting system is the answer’

Komal ShethI moved from Kolkata to Pune two years ago. My voter ID was already made in Kolkata and there was no provision for me to transfer the voting constituency to Pune. My hectic college and work schedules didn’t let me travel to vote in my constituency. I had prepared to vote and created my photo ID, but I didn’t get the chance. I feel bad and disappointed. It would have been more satisfactory if there is better provision for people who move due to work or education. An online voting system is definitely an answer, but we still need to figure out how it would work.

Hari Gaurav, Chennai: ‘My vote is not going to change anything’

I have completed my BE from a city college. I didn’t vote. I opted not to vote because none of the parties have promised free education for financially poor students. None of the parties have promised to develop the quality of education in India. I prefer to be a non-voter than vote. My vote is not going to change anything.

Eric Kapadia, Mumbai: ‘It didn’t make the slightest difference to my life’

Eric Kolpada

Having lived in Canada for the past two years now, this was the first time I was away during elections. Although I couldn’t come home to vote, it didn’t make the slightest difference to my life. All these politicians only focus on places where they know they will get a large number of votes. Maybe that’s why nobody votes in South Bombay – not because we’re snobs, but because if they don’t seem to care about us, then why should we care about them? But the day a leader rises and has the courage to talk about issues that are swept under the rug in India, that’s a day I would look forward to voting.

Arsilan Lone, Srinagar: ‘I will not betray the martyrs’

Arsilan LoneI will never vote for any pro-Indian politician in Kashmir. They are nothing but stooges of New Delhi and just strengthening the brutal occupation by India. I am part of the future of Kashmir and I will not start my life by kissing the hands that are red with the blood of our brothers and sisters. I will not betray the martyrs. It doesn’t matter whether pro-freedom leaders give election boycott call or not, I know my moral responsibility very well. I was born in an occupied nation but my mind and heart have never accepted that.

Rahul Shah, Mumbai: ‘Why aren’t the roads fixed?’

Rahul ShahIf I was interested in politics, I would have voted. Nobody within the political sphere seems to care much about the political good. If I’m not wrong, this is one of the constituencies that gets the largest share of funds. So why aren’t the roads fixed? What is happening to the filth everywhere? Nothing.So what difference would it have made if I voted? I have my voter’s ID and the polling booth was just opposite my house. Still, I chose to go for a holiday.

Rishabh Gupta, New Delhi: ‘If only the EC had been more efficient’

Rishab Gupta

I would have voted for first time in this election if the Election Commission had eased out the ways to register for the voter ID card. I had registered myself with all my details on Election Commission’s website but nobody came to verify the details at my home. When I enquired from officials who distribute voter ID cards they told me to visit the regional office but I was not able to visit due to my college. I am very sad that I was not able to vote in this transformative election. I wish I could have voted. If only the election commission had been more efficient.

Nandini (not her real name), Mumbai: ‘I didn’t vote because I don’t want to give them power’

Being an 80-year- old woman, I have been a part of Indian history. I was there when the first general elections took place. I’m not proud of the fact that I didn’t vote, but it doesn’t bother me. Every day there are the same news: One politician says something to another, so the party gets angry. Everyone starts shouting, not allowing other people to speak. Tell me, how am I supposed to take these people seriously? I didn’t vote because I don’t want to give them power. I think the entire concept of elections is beautiful. One citizen giving power to another. But as soon as the power is given, some people then do nothing. Instead, they take my money and build themselves big fancy homes. And this merry-go-round has been happening for years. So if I vote, I will help turn the merry-go-round, reinforcing the cycle. Now that’s something that would bother me.

With inputs from: Zulkarnain Banday, Rachitaa Gupta, Manolakshmi Pandiarajan, Jehan Lalkaka, Anshul Gupta, and Deepa Venkatesan.

Photo: rajkumar1220, Flickr CC


Why India won’t see enough women in Parliament for a long time

Women in India at a rally in Mumbai. Photo: Al Jazeera English, CC

“You can tell the condition of a nation by looking at the status of its women.”
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India

“Politicians only address men. We, the women of the village, are told by our husbands which symbol to vote for. We don’t think, we vote.”
Nirmala Devi from Sarhera village, Haryana, speaking to Project India

It is all over bar the counting. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections are done. Figures available from the Election Commission of India show the total turnout of voters was 66.38 per cent , which means that 551.3 million people stood in line at polling booths all over the country and pressed the button of their choice on electronic voting machines.

By the evening of Friday, May 16, 2014, India will know who will lead its new government at the centre. Or, if the votes are too divided for a clear leader to emerge, have at least an inkling of what to expect over the next five years. Everyone, however politically apathetic they may be, expects change.

But one thing will not change, or at least not by a great extent. And that is the number of women among the elected Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, the lower of the two houses of Parliament, literally translated into English as ‘the House of the People’. Come June 1, when the new government begins to function, 543 MPs will occupy seats in the Lok Sabha, but less than a hundred of them will be women.

It’s possible to know this already. Women composed just eight per cent of all the candidates from all the political parties that contested the elections this time. That is, only 632 women ran for election, as opposed to 7,527 men.

In the last Lok Sabha that came into power in 2009, there were 59 women MPs, meaning they occupied about 11 per cent of the seats. To maintain or beat these numbers in the 2014 elections, the women candidates, though wildly outnumbered, need to be more electorally successful than the men.

Is this proportional representation in the world’s largest democracy? Hardly.

You’d imagine that, at least in these elections, there would be more women candidates than ever before. Since the horrific gang rape in New Delhi in December 2012, women’s concerns about safety, sexual insecurity and gender discrimination have been in the media spotlight consistently, leading to discussions, arguments, introspection and a clearer picture of the strongly patriarchal society that is India. The fact that the ruling Congress lost the Assembly elections in New Delhi in 2013 can be partly attributed to the way it behaved after the December 2012 gang rape: these issues are believed to have motivated a good proportion of the female electorate to go out and vote. And women compose half the population of the country. So how come political parties didn’t think it important to nominate and support more women candidates?

This is because women are not seen as winners, according to a study by Dr Carole Spary of the University of York, England. In a paper titled Women Candidates and Party Nomination Trends in India – Evidence from the 2009 General Election, she writes that  political parties in India tend to see women as less likely to win elections than men, and therefore prefer not to take risks with seats they could conceivably win. The perception that ‘winnability’ is based on gender is very strong, even though, if you break up the electoral success rate by sexes, the women who do win elections are proportionally far more successful than the men who win, given the huge number of men they have to beat.

The 2009 general election, which made 59 women MPs, was a record-breaker as far as women’s representation was concerned. Before that, women tended to occupy about eight to nine per cent of the Lok Sabha’s seats. But the fact that more women got to Parliament in 2009 did not mean that political parties nominated more women in 2009. It was just that more women beat more men. So it is fairly clear that political parties continue to lack faith in women as winners, which makes it difficult for women to participate in politics at all. Add to this the fact that, compared to men, women are less likely to stand for elections as independent candidates (in the 2009 elections, slightly more than a third of female candidates ran as independents while nearly half the male candidates did the same) for various reasons including a lack of finances for an effective campaign, and you begin to see why there aren’t many more women in the electoral field.

Congress leader Sonia Gandhi

It’s true that India is not the only nation with such a low proportion of women among its popularly elected legislators. In the West, even countries with far longer and deeper traditions of democracy and gender equality are struggling to deal with the same problem. So you could argue that a democracy that is still less than 70 years old is not doing too badly. While the proportion of women in the Lok Sabha was 11 per cent at its best so far, in the US House of Representatives, it was 18.3 per cent, and in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons at this time, it is 22.6 per cent. These proportions remain about the same in the upper houses of India, the USA and the UK’s legislative bodies.

Among its neighbours, however, India falls somewhere in the middle of the scale of women’s participation in politics. More than 20 per cent of the lower houses of Pakistan, Nepal and China’s national legislative bodies are women, while only five to six per cent of Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka’s national legislative bodies are female.

But comparisons are meaningless — just because one nation does better or worse than another, it does not mean that that nation does not have a problem.

And the problem with women’s participation in politics in India, it could be argued, has much to do with the country’s patriarchal attitude. In 2014, male children are still preferred and though prenatal sex determination was banned in 1996, female foetuses are still aborted in high numbers, and girl children who are born tend to be given poorer care than boys. This attitude is so deeply rooted that according to the 2011 Census, India now has 37 million fewer women than men (586.5 million women to 623.7 million men).

A good indication of how little regard girls tend to get in India is the literacy rate. For men, the literacy rate is 76 per cent, but only 54 per cent of women are literate. This means their opportunities are limited.

All these issues and more have been in the media spotlight since the Delhi gang rape. But even though sexual violence and the state of women’s safety in Delhi was one of the reasons why the ruling Congress was wiped out in the Assembly elections last December, public anger over the lack of safety for women does not seem to have a national resonance yet. Even many women, the victims of patriarchy, seem not to understand the insidiousness of the social system, as India learnt when Asha Mirje, a politician from the National Congress Party and a member of the National Women’s Commission, said at the beginning of this year that the victims of gang rapes might have invited the attacks with their clothes, behaviour and their presence at inappropriate places.

So it seems unlikely that the change that is demanded in these Lok Sabha elections will include much-needed change for women in India.

But what of the future?

In 1947 after Independence, India became a democracy and, unlike many post-colonial states, has managed to stay a democracy so far. So the women of the nation still have hope. And it isn’t a weak hope. The way the public spontaneously mobilised itself against the establishment after the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi; the way the media took up the gang rape case and forced politicians and the establishment to address women’s concerns, show that women’s voices can and will be heard. So in the future, there could be many more women in Parliament.

Having more women in the Lok Sabha would not necessarily eliminate all the issues that the women of India face every day. But it would show half the nation that the other half of the nation is capable of being leaders, politicians and role models.

Photos: Al Jazeera English CC

This story was also published on Rediff.com, our media partner.


After 25 years of conducting polls, I finally voted

 D Venkatesan, 52, government servant, Pune

Government servant

What India has just witnessed is the largest electoral exercise seeking change. I could feel the tectonic plates shifting beneath my feet! I am a common man; middle-class, mid-50s, who goes to office at 8 in the morning and returns home by 6pm. I always wanted to be part of the system by at least casting a vote. It was finally possible after 25 years on April 17, 2014, when I voted for the first time.

I am a central government employee and work for a water research station in Pune. Every time during elections, the expected routine for those few days would be to complete election duty. I have most of the time been assigned to far-off constituencies. And by the time our duty is over, it is too late to even think of casting our vote. There is something called the postal ballot form that get issued; but technical glitches were such that my vote never reached on time. However, this year, fortunately, I was not assigned any duty! The day I came to know that, I heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, I could vote, that too in the most important election, when my country faces a revolutionary road.

Since the past few months, more than politics, government or even office, media has overpowered our lives. I began to feel that there was a whole new side to choosing the right candidate. I began to feel as though the news channels were indirectly telling me every night at prime time whom to vote for!

The anxiety of being a first-time voter after 25 years was there in me. We have seen corruption, unemployment, and a lot of other issues. Change is something that our country needs. That was a definitive ground for me, to understand and cast my vote to the rightful candidate. There may be politicians who use social media to attract the masses, and there may be others who play the blame-game and expose others. I didn’t let any of the ‘limelight’ influence my vote. My vote was a choice made taking into account each and every one’s work.

When I went up to the polling booth early that morning, I noticed a lot of chaos just a few yards away. There was a huge crowd of people, frantically flipping pages of books, trying to browse through. This was the condition in many other booths, because a lot of people were disappointed to not find their names in the list. There had been discrepancies in the way the EC officials had pooled in papers and the list lacked information about a lot of potential voters. They promised to make the changes before the next elections.

Fortunately, my name was there. I had been given a chance after 25 years to be part of the system and feel responsible for it. That is why, my vote mattered. It will, I am sure, make the due difference!

As told to Deepa Venkatesan. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Photo: D Venkatesan in Jammu & Kashmir, during an unrelated event.

This story was also published on WoNoBo.com, our media partner.

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