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.’

It is for this reason that the totaliser machine is urgently required. Currently, votes are counted by EVMs, making polling booth data available through the ECI. This allows political parties to know exactly which communities have voted for them and which have not, leaving voters vulnerable. The totaliser is able to electronically mix ballots before counting, in a way that large drums were used for mixing paper ballots. In order to protect the secrecy of the ballot, it is imperative that the totaliser is implemented.

Election officials revealed that they, too, were fully aware of the responsibility of elections vested in them and anticipated their duties with a mixture of excitement and dread. As government of India officials, a mistake committed while on election duty could lead to a black mark in their annual report. It is no wonder that one of them said, “Yeh pariksha bhi hai aur shaadi bhi!”—It feels simultaneously like an exam and a wedding! In order to serve as officials, they are required to undergo training in three stages to learn their way around the electoral procedures and the enormous paperwork that it entails. Much of the training also anticipates what needs to be done when things go wrong or when the unexpected happens, such as the case of a visually impaired voter who requires help with the EVM. The commitment of election officials towards the proper conduct of elections is recognised by voters. To vote in India has, therefore, become a means of being taken seriously, as one man put it: “Vote se hamar pehchan banta hai”—The vote gives me recognition.

Research has shown that voting is seen as a duty to exercise a foundational right that each citizen has and one that underpins all other claims—to food, education and security. Some even refer to it as their birthright. Indian voters see their electoral participation as fundamental to their engagement with the state, and their names on the voting list as a rare but valued official acknowledgement of their existence by a system that otherwise neglects their interests. Fulfilling the duty to vote is an important responsibility and as one voter put it, “It is my right to vote and it is my duty to exercise this right. If I don’t discharge this duty, it is meaningless to have this right.” A person in Kolkata referred to Election Day as “Vote Puja”— worship— to capture this meaning as an inviolate and sacrosanct duty.

The responsibility to vote was further reinforced by tremendous peer pressure to not waste a vote. This was inadvertently created by the simple procedure followed by election officials of marking the left index finger of those who voted with a short vertical line in indelible black ink. While this is done to prevent fraudulence, it also creates peer pressure particularly in close-knit communities, as it is impossible to lie about having voted. To not have the ink mark on one’s finger results in suspicion and questions about the reasons for not voting.

Therefore, to not vote is unthinkable for many marginalized citizens and is expressed in emphatic terms by many. “Vote toh debe hi karo”—Of course, I will vote. And because of this potency, to be able to vote is a cherished right that people express in emotive terms as one man did, “Vote na diye toh aisa laga jaise maa se baccha bichad jata hai na”— For us not to vote is like a child to be separated from her mother. Thus, as with other borrowed words, the original meaning of “vote” is rather expanded in its Indian usage. While “to vote” continues to indicate a mechanism to express support for a chosen candidate or political party in an election, it has also acquired an affective meaning.

This is an edited excerpt from The Great March of Democracy, edited by SY Quraishi and published by Penguin Random House.