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Booths heave with signs of a ‘crisis election’

- Some see German parallel as personality-driven polls push up turnout

New Delhi, April 24: The higher-than-usual voter turnout so far in these Lok Sabha polls reminds political scientist Rekha Saxena of the March 1933 German elections that catapulted Adolf Hitler to power.

Unlike some of Narendra Modi’s critics, Saxena is not comparing the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate to the Nazi leader who pushed the world into its deadliest ever war. What she spots, though, is a parallel that points to one of the clearest trends political scientists agree has emerged from the 2014 general election so far — a spike in Indians queuing up to cast their vote.

Some are crediting an extra-active Election Commission. Others cite greater efforts by political parties to get the voters — especially the youths and first-time voters — out. Yet others point to the rare, personality-driven nature of the ongoing contest as a seed that has spawned unusual interest even among couch-surfers.

But political scientists are convinced these factors may only be catalysts for a deeper belief that fuelled a 12 percentage point hike in notoriously unconcerned Mumbai’s voter turnout compared to 2009: a perception among ordinary Indians that more is at stake in these elections than is usual.

“This is being perceived as a crisis election,” Saxena, who teaches at Delhi University, said. “Historically, crisis elections are marked by higher voter turnouts than usual.”

Mumbai today was only the latest among a series of cities, regions and states — Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka — that have all registered voting percentages significantly higher than in 2009. The election phases in Bengal, where turnout is usually high, have also clocked higher figures.

Political parties are citing convenient interpretations to claim electoral gains. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP-led front attributed the vote percentage increase to a “Modi wave” and young voters turning up to back its candidates. AIADMK managers claimed that they had mobilised their traditional support base of women to vote in large numbers. The DMK said the turnout was an indication of anti- incumbency.

But political scientists caution against concluding that the high voting percentages always point to a vote for change — as the BJP and other Opposition parties are asserting.

Yes, supporters of strong personalities, like Modi and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal, may turn up in greater numbers than usual to vote. But equally, those opposed to these leaders may choose to make a journey to the polling booth they may have skipped in earlier elections.

“There are enough examples in Indian electoral history where high turnouts have indeed led to a change, and an equal number of examples when high turnouts were responsible for voting a party back to power,” Suhas Palshikar, political scientist at the University of Pune and the director of polling agency Lokniti, told The Telegraph. “What is clear is that the current political climate has made parties push harder than usual to get voters out.”

The voting percentage in Bengal’s Assembly elections went up marginally — from 75 per cent to 76 per cent — between 1987 and 1991, and then dramatically to 82 per cent in 1996. But the Left retained power through these elections.

The personality-driven nature of the election campaign has blurred the ideology-based voting patters that dominate most elections, said K. Subuddhi, political scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

“Disengaged voters find it easier to identify with personalities than ideologies and a personality-driven contest like these Lok Sabha elections engages them in a way traditional elections may not,” Subuddhi said.

The explosion of media outlets and their non-stop coverage of the elections and their run-up have contributed too, Calcutta University political scientist Bonita Aleaz said.

Efforts by the Election Commission to eliminate fake voters from electoral rolls have also brought down the gap between those voting and the number of eligible voters, reflected in a higher voting percentage, Palshikar said.

But these factors may only be exaggerating an existing mood that lies at the base of the unusually high turnouts so far these elections.

“If we look back at our post-Independence electoral history, we have seen unusual voter turnouts in particular periods of time, specifically when the voter has desired to express something specific,” Aleaz said.

Germany, saddled with unjust treaties by the victors of World War I that had shackled its economy and spawned unemployment, was at one such inflection point when it held federal elections in March 1933, two months after Hitler and the Nazi Party had forcibly seized power.

Although the Nazi party did not win a majority, they emerged the single largest party and formed the government with an ally, riding on a significant rise in voter turnout from 74 per cent in the 1928 elections to 83 per cent in 1933.

Within days, the German Parliament passed the Enabling Act that allowed Hitler to effectively become a dictator.

The BJP and other critics of the ruling UPA government have blamed it for hobbling the Indian economy, and are urging voters to back them as an alternative. But Modi’s critics are painting him as the harbinger of a crisis upon India.

“A high voter turnout may well mean a vote against the party or individual seen as responsible for the national crisis,” Saxena said. “But only time will tell who voters decide that is.”


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