Fallacies about voter turnout

Why did voters in south Mumbai have a pathetic turnout at 42% whereas other areas in India recorded up to 90%? Why was the south Mumbai turnout worse than in South Delhi, both areas populated by the elite chatterati? There was much hand-wringing on TV channels when polling took place in Mumbai.

Many experts attributed low turnout to the alienation of the elite from the democratic process — the secession of the rich. Other experts extolled the virtues of the poor, who supposedly turned out in larger numbers. You see, said the experts, the poor really prize their vote, since it gives them power that they do not get from income, caste or class. And so the poor turn out in large numbers even as the urban middle class claims to be disgusted by the entire electoral spectacle and finds little reason to vote.

Now, TV analysis can be called instant entertainment rather than diligent research. On TV, experts are expected to come out with firm views within minutes of a new fact, for that is what the audience wants. The instant wisdom of this process is not always cross checked or modified after waiting for the final data.

If we look at the data on voter turnout in all the states, we find that most theories about voting behaviour fail to hold water. It is not that rival theories suddenly appear. Rather, the range of voting turnout across states, and variations in the same state in different elections, is so large that it defeats any quick analysis.

Take a look at the accompanying table. Does it validate the thesis that the well-off middle class has a poor turnout, while the poor turn out in huge numbers? Not at all. The lowest turnout in both 2004 and 2009 was in Jammu and Kashmir, a special case showing the continued alienation of the local people from the Indian mainstream. But the second lowest turnout of 44.3% in 2009 was in Bihar, our poorest state. And next lowest comes Uttar Pradesh, another very poor state, with a turnout of 47.2%.

This makes a complete mockery of the thesis that the poor greatly prize their vote and turn out in huge numbers. They may indeed do so in some places on some occasions. But as a generalisation, the thesis fails. Hundreds of millions of poor people did not find it worth their while to cast their vote in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, the turnout in Bihar was comparable with the 43% or so recorded in south Mumbai. Clearly, the turnout behaviour of the millionaires of south Mumbai and the impoverished masses of Bihar has much in common. I await a new theory on why this is so.

The turnout in the National Capital Territory around Delhi was 51.8%, below the all-India average of 56.7%. But does that indicate the relative alienation of the urban middle class? Not at all. The turnout was as high as 65.0% in Chandigarh and 60.0% in Puducherry (which recorded a huge 76.07% turnout in 2004). So any quick generalisation about the urban middle class fails. Indeed, the variation in the turnout in Puducherry between 2004 (60.0%) and 2009 (76.07%) drives home the lesson that completely local phenomena, unrelated to any grand theories of class or caste behaviour, can create enormous variations in turnout.

Huge variations in the two election years of 2009 and 2004 are evident in several other states: Tripura (83.9% and 67.08%), Manipur (79.8% and 67.41%), Chandigarh (65% and 51.14%), and Mizoram (50.9% and 63.6%). Big swings in turnout are common in, but not limited to, small states — Bihar too swung from 58.02% in 2004 to 44.3% in 2009.

Where was the turnout highest? For reasons that are far from evident, the north-east did very well, with Nagaland topping at 90.2%, and Tripura (83.9%), Sikkim (82.0%) and Manipur (73.9%) close behind. This cannot be explained in terms of caste, class or poverty. Nor can it be said that tribal areas have a high turnout — Jharkhand is close to the bottom, and Mizoram too (an exception to the north-eastern pattern, it recorded just 50.9%).

Among larger states, the Marxist strongholds of West Bengal and Kerala come out on top. The richest state in per capita income, Goa, recorded a turnout just below the national average in 2009 and just above it in 2004. No clear lesson here. The second richest state, Gujarat (47.9%) is near the bottom, sandwiched between two very poor states Rajasthan (48.5%) and UP (47.2%). No clear pattern here either.

Conclusion: we really do not know what drives voter turnout. The huge variations in the same state in different elections suggests that purely local phenomena produce major changes that have nothing to do with grand theories of how the rich and poor behave, or how various castes and classes behave. This is an unacceptable line for instant expert on TV (including myself). But experts need to stop taking themselves so seriously and so say, like Winnie the Pooh “nobody knows, tiddledy-pom.”

Maybe we should treat this issue as one of entertainment rather than class analysis. Here is an excellent example from the internet.

Ten reasons why South Mumbai did not vote

10. Clashed with Salsa class
9. Election whites not drycleaned
8. No candidate a hottie
7. Tony Jethmalani contesting from suburbs. Sigh
6. No valet parking at booth
5. Spotted servant in queue ahead of us
4. Driver not come
3. Elections over dude, Obama won!
2. No party tackling real issues, eg, reduce Gold Gym rates
1. No home delivery!

Why Delhi turned up to vote

1. They loved the Tata Tea ad
2. They saw the Chopras go out, and thought they must overtake the Lancer from left
3. Bunty’s girlfriend wanted to when they were going out for some Chinese
4. Diwan Saheb on second floor persuaded them. He is jaaaint saactry in DPCC
5. Without stable government, real estate will not revive
6. Election Commission directly asked Pappu. So nice of them
7. Grandfather started talking on Partition, and they had to run
8. Auntyji hoped some TV crew will come and take a soundbite
9. Baba Ramdev said it is good for health
And finally,
10. They had to beat the Bambaiyaas. Izzat ka sawaal hai, hainji?

What do you think?