The elections are over and the best man has won. Be that as it may, what has stood out, and rather egregiously at that, has been the low voter turnout in our city. At an average of 61 per cent across the three Lok Sabha constituencies, it was far lower than the State’s 71 per cent. It ranked below the country‘s capital, Delhi (65 per cent), and politically active Kolkata (66 per cent). Is Chennai. the country’s cultural capital, also politically or electorally the least sensitive?
Not so, it may appear, if you compare it with two other metros – Bengaluru and Mumbai, both of which saw even lower figures than Chennai, 54 and 55 per cent respectively. What it does indicate, however, is that these three cities have a problem in terms of voting. Since we concern ourselves with Chennai, let us restrict ourselves to looking at why it lagged behind.
Ever since the 1980s, Chennai has recorded low turnouts. The figures have always been marginally higher for the Assembly elections when compared to the Lok Sabha polls. Thus, the 2011 elections to the State Legislature had a turnout of 73 per cent, almost 12 per cent higher than the current Parliamentary polls. The State wing of the Election Commission, well aware of this, had set itself a target of 80 per cent turnout in the city in the ongoing elections and had worked towards it. Private organisations had come out with advertising campaigns in support. Several celebrities duly paraded before the media with uplifted and inked forefingers. None of it appears to have had the desired effect. Why is this so?
The reasons could be many. Leaving aside the most often cited one – that of sweltering heat (but it is not exactly snowing in other parts of the country, or is it?), let us examine a few others. The first is the changing demography of the city. Today, Chennai has a far higher percentage of migrant population than it has ever had before. People from all parts of the country have arrived here to work. Several of them have been issued voter cards. But most of them lack a connect with the city. Yes, it is an election for the country and not the local civic body but, still, they might feel that their vote will make no difference. What if it was their own State or hometown? Then they feel it would be another matter altogether. Locals have a similar logic for not voting. One regional party or the other would win anyway. So what difference could it make at the Centre? That may not hold water, as we have had coalitions for quite some time now, in which regional parties have had a big say. Others claim they “are disgusted with the political system”. For them, the Election Commission has introduced the NOTA option. With all this and more available, why stay at home and sulk?
Secondly, the campaigning hardly touched the more upmarket areas of the city. Most of these localities have multi-storied buildings and the party workers could not go door to door, by which we mean calling on each residential unit in a building. Residents feel that this might be indicative of the indifference of the contesting parties/candidates as far as their votes are concerned. But there is another side to it. Political workers can rarely gain entry into gated communities and residential complexes. They would have to leave their pamphlets with the security personnel with the hope that they would be distributed. Officials of the Election Commission had to face the same problem when it came to distribution of booth slips. As a consequence, very few registered voters, several of them first time voters, had any idea as to which polling booth they had to go to.
Lastly, the new number-old number confusion with which we have lived for over six years now has played havoc with the voter lists. The Government itself is responsible for this mess, having encouraged the continued usage of both. It is high time we switched to one or the other.
Perhaps it is time we changed the methods of reaching out to voters? Do we need to contact voters through e-mails? On social media? Whatever it is, it is time to debate, at a macro-level, on the process itself and, at a micro-level, on the necessity to declare a paid holiday when many people don’t go to vote.