More is better but not good enough

Feb 14, 2012, 07:38 IST | Sushant Singh

Manipur -- 80 per cent, Punjab -- 78 per cent and Uttarakhand -- 70 per cent. The voter turnout in three states that went to polls recently has been very high.

Manipur -- 80 per cent, Punjab -- 78 per cent and Uttarakhand -- 70 per cent. The voter turnout in three states that went to polls recently has been very high. With the inaccuracies in electoral rolls -- voters who are out on essential duties or have emigrated to other states -- means that almost everyone who is on the electoral rolls has turned up to vote. Uttar Pradesh has also witnessed a high voter turnout of more than 60 per cent so far. Such turnouts, in free and fair elections, are universally hailed as being representative of the strength of Indian democracy.

"Go out and vote" is also the expert's favourite answer to the average citizen's complaint about India's governance. Campaigns like Jaago Re have been designed to encourage more people to vote. Such sloganeering has created a truism that greater electoral participation is a panacea to all our ills -- it strengthens our democracy, provides a fairer outcome and creates a just governance system.

Poll pitfalls: Uninformed voters are prone to be swayed by identity
politics, populist promises, manipulation, corruption and demagoguery

As most rural and poor urban citizens already vote during elections, these campaigns and slogans are targeted at the educated urban middle-class. This educated middle-class, which is so vocal in social, print and electronic media, often laments that democratically elected governments do not reflect its aspirations. At times, they believe that the political parties do not even care for their views, or their votes.

Although poor electoral choices are instinctively blamed on low literacy standards, there is significant evidence that many voters -- often literate and educated -- are equally incompetent, ignorant, irrational and morally unreasonable about politics, public policy and governance. In exhorting everyone to vote, we can end up increasing this pool of incompetent and ignorant citizens choosing their representatives. These uninformed voters are prone to be swayed by identity-politics, populist promises, manipulation, corruption and demagoguery that characterise Indian elections.

Compared to any western democracy, the average constituency size in our Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections is much bigger. The House of Commons has 635 members representing about a 100 million people, while the Lok Sabha has 543 members representing over 10 times that number. Empirical studies on voter behaviour confirm that voters tend to be altruistic but badly informed when their votes do not count for much, yet they tend to become more selfish and better-informed in rare cases when their votes do count for much. The inconsequentiality of individual votes in big constituencies means that voters, regardless of whether they have selfish or altruistic motives, have little incentive to be well-informed about politics, or even to form their political beliefs in a rational way. Such voters are liable to choose badly.

The undemocratic nature of our political parties means that even an informed voter is presented with false choices. She can elect representatives but has no worthwhile public debate to participate in. Candidates selected by party high commands on criterion of winnability -- for reasons of caste, money or muscle-power -- hold little appeal for the informed voter. By opting for the least bad choice at the polling booth, she still makes a bad choice.

Moreover, there is no correlation between higher electoral participation and better governance. More voting doesn't mean better quality government. People can turn out to vote in large numbers because they are angry with the incumbent government. This negative vote often propels the opposition into power which probably has no constructive agenda for governance. As in the case of Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, this can give the party an overwhelming majority which leads to hubris and results in unbridled populism.

Voter apathy and abstention are enemies of democracy. High voter turnout is necessary for democratic accountability but not sufficient to produce electoral outcomes that will deliver better governance. Intra-party democracy has to be at top of any agenda to strengthen our electoral polity. Greater powers need to be devolved to the lowest level because an individual vote will count in panchayat or corporation polls.

Meanwhile, all campaigns for greater voting must be accompanied by equally strong information campaigns for the voters on relevant public policy issues. While we celebrate these high voter turnouts, we must not forget that the end-result of our representative democracy has to be to improve governance.

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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