Parliamentary democracy in India puzzles both its admirers and critics. Its success in a country where large masses of people are illiterate and live in acute poverty is something of a mystery to observers and people from more mature democracies. The current elections to the 16th Lok Sabha show once again how ordinary Indians value their right to vote. Data available from the polling so far suggest that the turnouts this time have been at least five per cent higher than in the parliamentary polls in 2009. In some states such as West Bengal and Tripura, nearly 80 per cent of the voters exercised their franchise. Even in Chhattisgarh, where Maoist rebels had called for a boycott of the polls and killed over a dozen people involved in election-related work, the polling was as high as 67 per cent. The Maoist threats may be the worst problem for a free and fair election. But the Indian voters face many hardships, especially during the hot summer months, that could have made them less enthusiastic about casting their vote. Neither the deprivations in their daily lives nor the logistical problems of poll-related work, however, have deterred them from walking the extra mile to the polling booth or standing in the blazing sun.
Obviously, even the poorest of Indians know something about the power of the vote. They know that their participation is crucial to the democratic system. This is so despite their many complaints against the political class and sometimes about the system itself. High turnouts of voters are often interpreted as a reflection of the people’s desire for change. There is no denying that money and other inducements also play their part in mobilizing voters on the polling day. But the people’s hopes for better lives seem to be the most important reason for their participation in the electoral process. Hopes are often belied and poll-time promises easily broken. Even so, the people’s expectations from electoral democracy and their participation in it go beyond partisan politics. For all their acts of betrayal, politicians and governments too cannot afford to wholly ignore the concerns of the governed. There have been hate speeches and other discordant notes during the poll campaign this time. But the polls so far speak of the common people’s faith in their power to change things through the ballot.