Low polling carries message for parties - Hindustan Times
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Low polling carries message for parties

May 03, 2024 01:15 AM IST

The mismatch between political rhetoric and the humdrum existence of daily life has left many voters feeling unsettled and indifferent to the election process

Two rounds are done, five to go, here is the big question blowing in the excruciatingly hot summer wind this general election season. Despite the incessant drumbeat in TV studios and outside, why is the “festival” of democracy seeing a below-par turnout across the country? Heat, harvest, and long weekend holidays can only partly explain the turnout drop. Truth is, there is a democracy deficit in many parts of the country, leaving the average voter increasingly unenthused by the choices before her.

People from Kattunayakar tribe stand in a queue to cast their ballot at a polling station during the second phase of voting of India's general election in Wayanad district in Kerala on April 26, 2024. (Photo by R. Satish BABU / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
People from Kattunayakar tribe stand in a queue to cast their ballot at a polling station during the second phase of voting of India's general election in Wayanad district in Kerala on April 26, 2024. (Photo by R. Satish BABU / AFP)(AFP)

In the pre-election period, the buzz was centred around the Bharatiya Janata Party’s triumphal slogan, “Abki Baar Char Sau Paar”, almost as if the election itself was a “done deal” and the only thing that remained to be settled was whether Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi would break Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 record of 414 Lok Sabha seats. Now, as the election campaign has unfolded, both sides are suddenly faced with ground realities of a seemingly “wave-less” state-by-state election fight.

Which might explain why just a day after the first round witnessed a three per cent average fall in voter turnout, the PM took the lead in ratcheting up the communal rhetoric. Having entered the campaign with the promise of a “Viksit Bharat” by 2047, the gears were quickly shifted from the politics of hope to that of fear. Fear and hope are unusual companions: Fear can be harmful and destructive while hope can be positive and creative. If the 2024 general elections started with a sense of hope, it has rapidly descended into a climate of fear, one where half-truths and falsehoods are spread with impunity.

When in a rabble-rousing speech in Rajasthan, the PM likened the Congress manifesto to that of the Muslim League, warned of redistribution of wealth to “ghuspetiyas” or infiltrators, and even raised the spectre of mangalsutras being snatched away, the political calculation was obvious: Provoke the party’s core Hindutva constituency to join the battle against a familiar “enemy”. The Indian Muslim has always been central to the BJP’s rise as an electable force: in the 1990s, they were derisively referred to as “Babar Ki Aulad”, now “ghuspetiyas” is the latest dog-whistle. The pious platitudes of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas” are seemingly meant only for global acceptability.

If the BJP has revived its long-standing communal tropes, the Congress too is preying on imaginary fears. Waving a copy of the Constitution at his rallies, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has warned that if the BJP comes to power, it will amend the Constitution to do away with reservations for Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs. If the BJP wants to stir communal passions with incendiary rhetoric, the Congress seeks to connect with the Mandalite “social justice” constituency that is primarily responsible for its decline in north India over the last three decades.

And yet, the average voter, besieged with basic livelihood issues, remains unimpressed. Travel across the country and the disconnect between the leaders and citizenry is apparent. The last five years have been tough on many Indians — the Covid pandemic, extended lockdowns, price rise, job losses and falling incomes have hardly created the conditions to whip voters into a feel-good frenzy. A “rising” India is a talking point in five-star soirees but in the heat and dust of rural India, a water tanker that comes only once in eight days is a grim reality in many parts. The mismatch between rousing political rhetoric and the humdrum existence of life has left many voters feeling unsettled, if not indifferent to the poll process.

Maharashtra is a case in point. No state has seen the kind of political upheaval as the west coast powerhouse in the last five years. Three chief ministers in five years, shifting alliances and backroom deal-making have left a mark on its polity. Even political cadres across parties no longer seem as engaged with an electoral system that is seen to be driven by an amoral, ideologically bankrupt machine. Why should loyal party workers toil away when their leaders are constantly making unscrupulous compromises only to hang onto power at all costs? Yesterday’s fierce rivals are today’s key allies. Rampant opportunism has bred cynicism over brazen cash-and-carry politics amongst old-style political karyakartas.

While politicians have enriched themselves, agrarian distress accentuated by below-average rainfall, has created a shockingly unequal modern dystopia: Mumbai’s super-rich will hold their mangoes and cream poolside brunches even as in rural Maharashtra, the tanker mafia sells water at 200 a large bucket. Not surprisingly, the dominant voter mood in rural pockets across the state is one of disillusionment with unkept promises. Even “Modi Ki Guarantee” posters splashed across every corner of the country aren’t quite enough to offset creeping local anti-incumbency, one reason why the BJP has changed more than a hundred sitting MPs.

This leaves open the other big question: Who benefits or loses out electorally from a fatigued voter mindset? The BJP is justifiably confident that their superior election “sanghatan” (organisation) machine led by a leader who is still far more trusted than his competitors will ensure a hat-trick of wins. The Congress is clinging onto fading hope that voter apathy will give them at least a fighting chance in closely contested seats. And yet, the crisis of Indian democracy goes well beyond the BJP versus Opposition binary. The belief that voters are losing out irrespective of who wins an election is growing. Perhaps those who are not voting are also sending out a firm message: Don’t take our votes for granted.

Post-script: In a recent tweet, a viewer perceptively remarked how every time a politician is interviewed on television in their homes, the opulent living spaces stand out. By contrast, when common citizens are on camera, their struggles, be it in an overcrowded bus or tilling on arid land, are just as obvious. Who will bridge the divide?

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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