Manipur, which went to polls this month in two phases, recorded a voter turnout of 85%, the highest of the five states in which Assembly elections were held in the current round.
High voter turnouts are not a recent phenomenon in India’s North East. According to this data analysis in The Hindu, India has seen 41 instances since 1961 when voter turnout had been higher than 80%t in elections. Of these, 30 have been in North Eastern states.
Viewed from the outside, the electoral trends in the North East could seem contradictory. Ravaged by insurgency and reeling under the clampdown by security forces for decades, the region’s confidence in the political system should have been eroded. This should be reflected in an unenthusiastic response to the election process, at least as a show of resistance.
Instead, long-term trends in the region show the exact opposite. States in the North East have the highest average voter turnout, eclipsing all other regions in India by a significant margin.
Academicians believe this is due to the overlap of several factors, starting with a culture of celebration that takes advantage of a relaxed security cover in the run-up to the polls.
Except for a brief lull in the early 1980s, when insurgent groups unleashed violence against those violating their call for boycott of elections, the high voting percentage has been a consistent trend.
Walter Fernandes, senior fellow at the North Eastern Social Research Centre, said the trust in the larger political system is intrinsically connected to the urge to protect livelihoods.
In the North East, insurgency has impeded economic development. While the rest of the country reaped the benefits of liberalisation after the 1991 economic reforms, internal strife and violence ensured that North Eastern states were largely insulated from such changes.
The government remains the biggest employer. “They may not like system, but they know it is a vital part of their livelihood,” Fernandes said. Despite being subjected to violence by the security forces, recruitment drives of the army and other armed forces see huge response in these states since they are among the few employment opportunities available. Participating in the system is important to sustaining such opportunities.
Fernandes cautioned that historical figures should be viewed with some suspicion because, until electronic voting machines were introduced, the North East witnessed serious poll rigging. There have been instances when a single person cast the votes of an entire village. “Voters complaining that their votes had already been cast by the time they got to the booth was common,” he pointed out. This bulk voting had an effect on the overall turnout numbers.
In recent elections, like in Manipur this time, the emergence of new options, such as the entrance of Irom Sharmila into politics, has given the electorate another reason to exercise their franchise.
Other local factors also drive electoral participation. Fernandes added that like any other state, people in the North East want their basic needs fulfilled. This cannot be achieved without interacting with elected representatives: the local MLA is important in accessing government services.
Samir Kumar Das, professor of politics at the University of Calcutta, said there was a culture of celebration associated with elections in the North East.
“It is an occasion which people use to socialise,” he said. This is possible since elections are the only time when there is a relaxation of security cover in the states. There is a sort of “temporary autonomy” with the people during elections, creating a profound attachment to the process itself.
Another factor at play, especially since peace talks between government and insurgent groups began in many of these states in the 1990s, is the coercion from insurgent groups to vote. This, the professor said, could be termed as “reverse intimidation” in contrast to the boycott calls given by the same groups in the past.
Das said a deep nexus has developed between mainstream political parties and the insurgent groups. The groups try their best to elect the party they favour in order to derive the benefits of being proximate to power. “The perception that insurgent groups are always opposed to the government is a false narrative,” Das added.
This also explains why despite high turnout, there is a pro-incumbency bias in the North East. Elsewhere in India, higher voting percentages turn out to be detrimental to the incumbent government. “Corrupt politicians are reelected consistently,” Das said. “Even party hopping has not affected their electoral performance.”