Sanjay Kumar | Elections at 73: Women voters, ‘criminal’ leaders

The sweet memories could also be remembered as an upsurge in electoral participation of the marginalised

The seven-decade-long journey of electoral politics in India has both sweet and sour memories.

The sweet memories of India’s electoral journey could be documented as the increasing participation of Indian voters in the numerous elections held so far to form governments at three levels — central, municipal/panchayat and state.

The sweet memories could also be remembered as an upsurge in electoral participation of the marginalised. It can also manifest as a reasonably high degree of trust shown by Indians in institutions vital for the functioning of the government.

But in this journey of sweet memories have also existed some bitter experiences — elections being violent at times, an expanding role of muscle (dabang) and the role of money power.

Though trust in institutions remains high, the trust in elected representatives (MPs, MLAs and sarpanchs) has declined over the last few decades. This is largely due to frequent defections of leaders from one party to another, signalling the declining role of ideology in Indian politics.

Since Independence, Indians have exercised their franchise 17 times to elect the national government. These elections over the years have witnessed increasing participation of voters.

The first Lok Sabha elections witnessed a high turnout of 61.1 per cent and the second in 1952 witnessed a higher turnout of 62.2 per cent.

But after that, for a very long time, the turnout at Lok Sabha elections remained below 60 per cent, barring exceptions. It increased to 66 per cent during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and touched 67 per cent during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The state Assembly election witnessed a much higher turnout compared to the Lok Sabha election and the last few decades witnessed a significant increase in this parameter.

Due to constituencies being much smaller and campaigns being personalised, local body elections have witnessed a much higher turnout compared to the other two levels of elections.

Although women got their voting rights along with men, they lagged far behind men in exercising it.

Earlier, many of them did not come out to vote resulting in a big gender gap in turnout. But turnout amongst women has increased significantly during the last few Lok Sabha elections.

The gap between male and female turnout that used to be 9-10 per cent got narrowed down to 1.6 per cent during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and during the 2019 Lok Sabha election men and women voted in equal proportions — shoulder to shoulder — the biggest story of the Indian elections so far.

Youth, too, have begun to participate much more actively in elections now. Dalit and adivasi voters, who were earlier missing from the long queues on the voting day up until the mid-1990s, have also started voting in much bigger numbers.
The beauty of Indian elections has been that all its verdicts have been acceptable to both the winner and the loser.

Some elections resulted in the incumbent getting re-elected, while there have been other instances when the ruling party lost badly.

This trend has been visible in all the three types of elections. There have been contestations and counter-contestations about how free and fair the elections were, especially in the 1990s when elections, including many state Assembly elections, were marred by violence, but in spite of all that, results were accepted gracefully.

There has been discomfort about the use of the electronic voting machine (EVM). Political parties suspected these machines could be tinkered with, but all these issues come to a rest once results are declared.

Unlike in many countries where there are major disputes around election results, in India we never had any similar dispute and government formation has never been held up due to controversy over election results. Political parties have shown a great deal of maturity in this respect, but the credit should also go to the Election Commission of India.

Question have been asked about the EVMs, but results have gone in favour of and against all political parties at some point of time — no party can complain of being at the receiving end all the time.

In election after election, both at the national and state levels, Indian voters have shown a great deal of maturity, voting back only the government that worked for the people. Were it not the case, the government would not have changed eight times at the national level.

Between 1952 and 2019, of the 363 Assembly elections held, the ruling party got re-elected 188 times and was defeated 175 times.

But unfortunately, this is not the whole story of the Indian elections. The aim of being in politics has almost entirely shifted from serving the people (seva bhaav) to be in power to make money by using political position and political pressure.

Elections have become far more expensive now compared to the past. An ordinary man has no place in present-day politics.

Not that one can win election only by using money power, but the importance of money for contesting an election has increased enormously.

A very large number (almost 30 per cent) of all contestants during the 2019 Lok Sabha election owned property worth more than Rs 1 crore. It is important to note that 86 per cent of elected MPs have assets worth more than Rs 1 crore.

The story remains the same for the state Assembly elections.

Even more disturbing to note is that a large number of elected representatives both in Parliament and the state Assemblies have criminal cases pending against them. Based on their own declaration of pending cases, 43 per cent of the current members of Parliament have criminal cases pending against them.

This is not unique of the current Parliament, 34 per cent MPs of the earlier Parliament had criminal cases pending against them, too.

This number stood at 24 per cent and 39 per cent, respectively, for the Lok Sabhas of 2004 and 2009. If women’s turnout is the biggest success story of the Indian elections, criminalisation of politics is its darkest.

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