Voting as a unique social experience: An excerpt from The Great March of Democracy

16 February 2019

In 2019, the Election Commission of India enters its seventieth year. In The Great March of Democracy, a collection of essays edited by SY Quraishi, the former chief election commissioner seeks to “celebrate seven decades” of India’s elections. “As we approach the 17th Lok Sabha elections, it is useful to look back and appreciate our momentous achievements while being mindful for our shortcomings,” Quraishi writes in the introduction to the book. He notes that the book attempts to look at electoral democracy through six different frames of reference—political, historical, social, economic, journalistic and administrative.

The book includes essays by analysts, politicians, academics, and public servants who have studied Indian elections. The essays address a range of themes—from tracing the evolution of the Election Commission and the story of the first electoral roll, to issues such as the influence of money in elections and the criminalisation of politics. In the following extract, Mukulika Banerjee, a professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics, discusses her research on why ordinary Indians choose to vote. Banerjee studied the question in detail in her 2014 book, Why India Votes? “Voting has become the most assertive way for citizens to inscribe their presence on the body politic,” she writes in The Great March of Democracy. “By showing up to vote, they avail of the chance of being counted and reminding the elite and the powerful that they exist.”

In this rich tapestry of election studies, what remains relatively less understood is the voter herself. Research questions of election studies are driven by a processual view of elections that aims to analyse or predict electoral results and scrutinise political actors, such as politicians and middlemen, through their social background or political alliances. The voter becomes salient to explain how they vote, which political party they are likely to support and what determines these choices. These studies have made our comprehension of elections detailed, of course, but our understanding of the voter is mainly on the basis of how they vote rather than why they vote at all. This is a question worth pursuing mainly to explain rising turnout but also because political parties repeatedly fail to deliver on their campaign promises and social inequality continues to grow. Thus, it could be expected that in India, like in other older democracies, voter apathy can set in. But as we know, the opposite is true.

Why India Votes? aimed to address this gap and the main findings from this study pointed out that Indian voters vote for a number of reasons, some of which are obvious and the others, less so. Voters tend to vote for the candidate who they think best represents their interests, and caste and community often determine their choices. As some voters said to our team in 2009, they gave their votes like their daughters’ hands in marriages, only to those who belonged to their castes. Poor voters tend to reward parties that work for them, even if they have a reputation for being an outfit of the rich. Incumbents are punished for non-performance and there is a healthy appetite for change to test new politicians. The research during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections also revealed the counter-intuitive finding that some people always voted for the underdog who had no chance of winning just so that he would not lose his deposit or will. The need for keeping political competition in a democracy was keenly felt—a chapati has to be cooked on both sides and needs to be flipped over from time to time, people explained. But voters were in complete agreement about the venality of all politicians, and explained that politics was like quicksand that sucked you in and made you dirty. From these above explanations, it is clear that along with the support for a particular political party, voters were also committed to some basic principles of democracy, such as the need for political competition and rising above identity politics to reward performance.

The biggest revelation, however, of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, augmented by a further study conducted between 2012–15 on assembly elections in over six states, was how important elections were in reinforcing a sense of citizenship. Across India, voters pointed out that casting their votes at polling booths was unlike any other social experience they had ever had. Anyone who had their electoral photo identity card was allowed to stand in queue to vote and this created genuine social mixing in a way that no other public space in India allowed. People queued in the order in which they arrived and no preference was made on the basis of wealth, status or any other social marker, and so the polling booth was perhaps the only public space in India with no VIP culture and the otherwise ubiquitous factors of class, gender, work, age, skin colour, or disability that dominated Indian public life. Thus, middle-class voters often found themselves standing behind their domestic staff, and land owners behind agricultural workers.

For this fact alone, the experience of voting in an Indian election is unique and welcomed by voters, especially those who come from socially disadvantaged sections. This small but significant detail is further reinforced by the civility of polling officials towards all voters and their care towards those who need help. The business of voting itself is thus accessible, efficient, takes minimum effort and the public holiday declared on polling day adds a festive note to it. For those who are routinely discriminated against on the basis of caste, colour, class and religion in everyday life—and millions of Indians experience these acutely—this extraordinary glimpse of egalitarianism is deeply valued.

Voting has thus become the most assertive way for citizens to inscribe their presence on the body politic. By showing up to vote, they avail of the chance of being counted and reminding the elite and the powerful that they exist, and in large numbers, and can therefore determine their political fates at elections. “The vote is our weapon,” is a statement often used to describe this sense of empowerment. The voter is conscious of making the correct individual choice, which is always open to the influence of a caste group, kin or community or indeed money and muscle. But the secret ballot offers an opportunity to escape this pressure. As one man put it, ‘One cannot express political loyalties inside a village, it is too risky. But we can in the vote.’

Mukulika Banerjee is an associate professor of social anthropology at the London School of Economics and the director of the South Asia Centre.

Keywords: citizenship general elections Election Commission voters voter turnout voting rights