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Politics 12-May, 2024

From Nehru to Modi: Exploring Voter Turnout Trends in Indian Elections

By: Rishav Khetan

From Nehru to Modi: Exploring Voter Turnout Trends in Indian Elections

In 2014 voter participation witnessed its highest-ever turnout of 66.4%, marking an 8.3 percentage point increase over 2009. This trend continued in 2019, with a further one percentage point increase. The BJP emerged as the primary beneficiary of this surge in turnout, as no other party managed to augment its vote share in these elections.

Thomas Jefferson's famous adage, "We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate," resonates strongly in the realm of democratic governance. Since independence India has already conducted 17 Lok Sabha elections with the 18th currently underway. With a staggering 96.8 crore eligible voters in 2024, the country's electorate is nearly four times larger than the United States, almost 20 times larger than the United Kingdom's, and seven times larger than Pakistan's. The essence of democracy lies in the active involvement of its citizens, ensuring that the government reflects the collective will of the people. The elections in India have seen fluctuating voter turnout previously, influenced by various political factors.

India's electoral system is based on the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system, where candidates winning the highest number of votes secure the constituency, regardless of obtaining a majority. This differs from the Proportional Representation system operational in countries like Israel and Australia, where parties gain seats corresponding to their vote shares. FPTP often results in disparities between votes and seats won by parties. For instance, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Samajwadi Party (SP) amassed 1.57 crore votes but only secured five seats, while the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) garnered 1.43 crore votes and 24 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with nearly 37% of the votes, captured 57% of the seats. The BJP's 2024 campaign slogan, "Abki bar, 400 Par," is based on historical data suggesting that achieving a 40% vote share would result in a two-thirds majority of 363 seats which is close to Amit Shah's claim of BJP securing 370 seats on its own. Consequently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP aims to boost its vote share by at least five percentage points to attain this objective.

Decoding Voter Turnout Behavior from 1951-2024

The inaugural General Elections in India, held in 1951, saw a voter turnout of 45.67%, followed by a slightly increased turnout of 47.74% in 1957, marking the lowest for any decade. Termed as the "biggest experiment in democracy in human history," the 1951 elections were notable for Jawaharlal Nehru's rallying cry of "Naya Hindustan Zindabad," reminiscent of the current BJP government's slogan of "New India." The highest voter turnout in the 1951 Lok Sabha election was recorded in the Kottayam Lok Sabha seat of Kerala at 80.5% and the lowest in Shahdol in present-day Madhya Pradesh with 18%. 

A recurring trend of declining voter turnout is observed during elections, which are prompted by government collapses. The 1971 Lok Sabha elections saw a sharp decline in the voting percentage with a drop of about 5.77% from the 1967 Lok Sabha elections (55.27% turnout). This decline was attributed to the split in the Congress Party in 1969 and Indira Gandhi's decision to dissolve the Lok Sabha prematurely, ordering general elections a year ahead of schedule. Similarly, there was a notable decrease in voter turnout during the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, plummeting from 61.9% in 1989 to 55.9%. Once again, this drop was linked to the early dissolution of the Lok Sabha. A parallel trend was evident in the 1999 elections, witnessing a 2% decline in turnout. However, despite the short duration between elections, voter turnout did experience an upswing between 1996 and 1998.

Voter Turnout Trends: India's 18th Lok Sabha Elections

Traditionally, voter turnout in India hovers around 60%. However, the anti-Congress wave in 2014 propelled voter participation to its highest-ever level of 66.4%, marking an 8.3 percentage point increase over 2009. This trend continued in 2019, with a further one percentage point increase. The BJP emerged as the primary beneficiary of this surge in turnout, as no other party managed to augment its vote share in these elections. It was the BJP which added the largest share of votes to its tally, with other national parties' vote share either declining or remaining stagnant. As India witnesses the 18th Lok Sabha elections, the voter turnout in the first two phases of the seven-phase process has been lower than in 2019. According to the Election Commission of India (ECI), the voting percentage in the first phase was 4% lower, and in the second phase, it was 3% lower compared to the 2019 elections. In the first phase, held on April 19 with 102 seats in contention, the voting percentage stood at 66.14%, while in the second phase, conducted on April 26 with 88 seats up for grabs, it reached 66.71%.

Urban constituencies in India have historically witnessed lower voter turnouts. In the recent two phases of elections, urban seats such as Ghaziabad saw a decline of 6% to 49.88%. Similarly, Gautam Buddh Nagar recorded a turnout of 53.63%, down from 60.4% in 2019. Moreover, Bangalore Central and Bangalore South experienced turnouts of 54.06% and 53.17% respectively, compared to 54.31% and 53.69% in the previous election. 

In recent times, the ECI has reported another concern with a loss in votes due to domestic migration. A considerable number of students and job-seekers who relocate from one state to another often find themselves unable to vote in elections due to the absence of mechanisms allowing them to cast their votes from their current place of residence. The ECI has been looking into measures to enable individuals who have migrated from one state to another, such as students and job-seekers, to cast their votes from their current place of residence. With the growing importance of citizen engagement in the democratic process in an ever polarized polity, the relevance of each voter being able to exercise its franchise can’t be emphasized more.

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