Some non-journalist friends accused me of being rude last Friday when I refused to discuss BMC elections with them because they went picnicking on polling day during the 2014 Assembly elections. This time round, they have planned an extended weekend escape from the city. A casual leave on Monday would ensure them a four-day break, and if their bosses are kind enough, they can extend holidays by another five days by bunking office on Wednesday and Thursday as well.
It upset them even more when I reminded them of their rhetoric that Mumbai is their jaan and they love very much the city where they were born and brought up! I even showed them their names in the online electoral list and asked why they were so apathetic to their own city. They were explained about the NOTA (none of the above) option if they didn't want to vote for any particular candidate. In return, they blamed my sensibilities as a journalist for the 'sermon', and offered me a deal to cut the debate off: "Are you game? Join us. Hum to chale!"
Mumbai's consistently low voter turnout is definitely connected to my friends featuring in this column, as well as the innumerable, unidentified families that wilfully skip voting. They may not always go on a holiday, but it is largely established that a significant number of people spend time anywhere but at polling centres.
This year, the commission picked Tuesday as the polling day in Mumbai, thinking that parents won't go out of the city because of ongoing school exams. Election authorities spend crores – the BMC's budget for conducting polls in 227 wards is a whopping R70 crore this year — to generate public awareness. Taxpayers fund this huge expenditure. So, people who wilfully avoid voting should understand that their absence also means a personal loss to them.
Increasing number of offices have started offering time off to staffers so the can vote. But finally, it boils down to the willingness of the citizen to make the extra effort. What hurts more is that the employees who get the entire day off still end up missing their date with the ballot. Mumbai will vote tomorrow. Of the total 91.8 lakh registered voters, 50.3 lakh are male, 41.5 lakh female and 381 are of third gender. This is 10 lakh less than the number of registered voters in 2012 – one crore.
No political party is confident of a bigger turnout in Mumbai, which boasts of the highest per capita income and a mammoth share in the national economy. BMC polls haven't really crossed the 50% mark in many decades. During the last poll, it was about 45% – the same as the 2009 Assembly elections. However, for the first time since 1995, the city crossed the 50% mark in the 2014 Assembly elections (51%), which was poorer than the 53% turnout in the Lok Sabha polls that was largely attributed to the Modi wave.
Mumbai's shortfall is also blamed on a shifting population who may not necessarily have their polling booths changed. In 2014, turnout in three Assembly constituencies that are dominated by a shifting population of slum-dwellers had dropped even as others improved their figures. The problem of duplicity in electoral rolls – instances of same names registered in more than one city – may also affect the turnout. But the commission says this particular problem has been taken care of.
The rest of Maharashtra votes much more, at least in terms of the turnout. On February 16, around 70% used their right to vote in 15 zilla parishads. The trend is expected to continue when rural Maharashtra goes to the second phase of ZP polls. Mumbai will vote the same day for the BMC. Come tomorrow, the focus will shift to the people who feel liberated ranting their views only on social media, dissecting politics sitting in their drawing rooms and cosy office chambers, instead of using the right to vote in a democratic process. We would like to see them standing in polling queues, too, braving the heat and dust.
Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore Send your feedback to email@example.com