It is a common refrain that the 2019 general election is missing the usual excitement and enthusiasm. Jagdeep Chhokar of the Association for Democratic Reforms, which studies elections, believes it’s because “voters are becoming more disillusioned with the democratic process”.

To buttress his claim, Chhokar cites a survey conducted by his organisation in early May. Though the survey does not directly measure voter enthusiasm, he claims that many of its findings point to growing disillusionment among the electorate.

Several political analysts and electoral data, however, dispute Chhokar’s assertion. At the very least, they question whether there is any measurable indicator to show voter disillusionment.

Chhokar argues that voters are disillusioned for two main reasons. One, the growing number of candidates with criminal cases. According to his organisation’s analysis of 7,928 election affidavits, 19% of the candidates in this election face criminal cases as against 17% five years ago and 15% in 2004. “This leaves voters with less choice and adds to their disillusionment,” Chhokar claims.

Two, voter priorities are not resonating in the campaign. According to the survey, better employment is a priority for 46.8% of voters, followed by better facilities of healthcare and drinking water. “It creates a disconnect when voters realise their issues are not being raised,” Chhokar contends. “If they get disillusioned with the democratic process, then they may prefer a dictatorial arrangement.”

Voter turnout

Other analysts argue that is is not so simple to assess voter enthusiasm. For example, they point out that the only directly measurable indicator of voter interest – until the results are declared, at least – is turnout, and that might increase in 2019.

Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies notes that voter turnout in 2019 is “more or less the same” as compared to 2014. “Apart from this yardstick, we can only give a subjective opinion for why voters may be disenchanted,” he argues.

The average turnout in the first six phases of the election was 66.6%, a slight increase from 2014, when India recorded the highest turnout ever in a parliamentary election of 66.4%.

Moreover, India seems to be bucking a global trend.

“All over the world, voter turnout numbers have dropped over the years except in India,” Yogendra Yadav, leader of Swaraj India party, points out. “It does not mean people are happy with the political system, however.”

To explain the contradiction, he offers an analogy: “I can be unhappy with my bank, but I still go there because that is the only way I can get my work done.”

Still, while turnout may be the only measurable indicator of voter disillusionment across the spectrum, surveying voter enthusiasm among various communities can offer some insights.

The National Election Survey conducted in March by Lokniti and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found Muslims the least enthusiastic to vote when asked how determined they were to exercise their franchise, and Christians and upper caste Hindus the most enthusiastic.

The survey noted that enthusiasm to vote was higher among supporters of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In the 2014 National Election Survey, people were not asked how enthusiastic they were to vote. The question simply was whether they would cast their ballots. Some 4.3% said they would not. Of the 92.9% who responded they would, only 77.5% said they would “definitely vote”.

The relative lack of enthusiasm this election may have to do with the absence of “a strong feeling in either direction”, Kumar argues. “In 2014, there was strong anger against the Congress and attraction towards the BJP,” he explains. “In this election, I don’t see that anger against the BJP government. But the public opinion in favour of the BJP is not very enthusiastic either.”

Criminal candidates

That criminal candidates are growing in number is inarguable. But is this trend a cause for voter dissatisfaction? The answer is not clear.

In his book, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics, the academic Milan Vaishnav explores the links between criminals and politics. He argues that parties field candidates with criminal backgrounds because of their ability to fund their own campaigns and win elections. Candidates with criminal records have 18% greater chance of winning than an average candidate, whereas candidates considered clean have only about 6% greater chance, writes Vaishnav.

His research shows that even informed voters support criminal candidates in places where caste and social divisions are sharper and also where the government fails in delivering, among other things, security and justice.

A 2018 survey by the Association for Democratic Reforms found 35.2% voters choose criminal candidates because they come from a similar caste or religious background. While about 35% vote for them because they have power, 35.8% do so because of the candidate’s “good work”.

This seemingly contradicts Chhokar’s assertion that criminality in politics is a major reason for voter disillusionment.

“Chhokar is right to point out there is disaffection with the candidate menu,” says Yadav. “It is not necessarily because of criminality, but because there are no good candidates. If you have to choose between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi as the two candidates for the Centre then things must be terrible. There is no accountability. People also complain that politicians don’t come to them after elections are over.”

Voters queue up at a polling station in Chennai. Photo credit: AFP

Missing issues

In the wake of the Pulwama attack, unemployment, healthcare and agrarian distress went missing as campaign issues as Modi steered the discourse towards nationalism and national security.

Chhokar offers this as a key reason for voter disillusionment. Yadav agrees that such issues are not being talked about in the ongoing campaign but argues that it is wrong to see it as a reason for disillusionment. “But there is a sense of disquiet,” Yadav adds. “Just because we cannot measure it does not mean it does not exist. People feel the election is not the occasion where they can address their issues. I cannot say much about how this disquiet will manifest itself.”

Political scientist Suhas Palshikar points out that the idea of voter disillusionment is only a hypothesis. “This is a very subjective understanding of how politics should be versus what it is,” he says. He adds, however, that this hypothesis cannot be rejected altogether and should be investigated. “Perhaps, voters should be asked if they think their vote matters.”

NOTA vote

Another way to measure disillusionment is to analyse the votes for the None of the Above, or NOTA, option. “The rise in NOTA votes is a sure sign of the expression of disillusionment,” says Sandeep Shastri, national coordinator of Lokniti.

It is unclear, however, if NOTA votes have indeed increased. NOTA came into effect in 2013. In all state elections where NOTA has been on the ballot at least twice so far, its share of the vote has gone down. Chhattisgarh, for example, recorded 3% NOTA votes in 2013 but only 2% in last year’s Assembly election. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh registered similar drops.

Also read: Indian voters cared most about jobs, healthcare, drinking water. Then, Pulwama happened

How India Votes: Does it matter what voters think of state governments during a Lok Sabha election?