NEW DELHI— Women and young voters are turning up in large numbers to vote across India, pushing up polling percentages and possibly giving this election one of the biggest voter turnouts ever.
When Ranjana Kumari, a well-known women’s activist, went to vote in her village in Uttar Pradesh state recently, she noticed a difference. “I saw groups of women walking to the polling booth, with all very beautiful saris and very happy mood," she explained. "This was not the scene earlier also because of the violence and the threat of being intimidated.
"Now with Election Commission taking care of the violence, they have a lot of police personnel posted, so women are also going in large numbers to go and vote,” she added.
Election Commission data testifies to what Kumari witnessed. Propelled by women and young people, so far 110 million more voters have turned up at polling booths compared to the 2009 general election. In the 438 out of 543 parliamentary districts that have gone to the polls in the phased election, the polling percentage has topped 66 percent -- higher than in any previous election.
The Election Commission attributes the brisk polling to a huge voter awareness program (known as Systematic Voters Education and Electoral Participation) it has implemented. Director General at the Commission, Akshaya Rout, who supervises the campaign, said they focused on removing what he calls the “youth disconnect” and the gender gap.
“We have engaged about I think more than 9000 campus ambassadors in all universities and big colleges, so that everyone is enrolled and everyone comes out to vote. We have women specific campaigns, we have got into “live” situations. In some areas there is a cultural tradition that women do not come out to vote, we have worked with the community there and men there and made sure cultural barriers are broken,” said Rout.
The results were evident: in several states across the country, more women than men turned out to vote.
Ranjana Kumari said this reflects the deep desire among women to improve their lives in a country where many people are still poor.
“There is across the country rising aspirations of women, not only in terms of education for their children and better livelihood, but also political aspiration," Kumari said. "They are understanding the value and worth of their vote, they are also looking at the future of the family and their children.”
However, many observers say the greater political engagement is not just a sign of vibrant democracy, but also the result of an extremely polarized election campaign.
The opposition Hindu nationalist party’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, is leading a no-holds-barred campaign to gain power. While he is projecting development as his main plank, there is heated, often angry debate among his supporters and detractors about allegations that he is divisive. The ruling Congress Party, which is fighting to ward off defeat, calls Modi a threat to the country’s secular future.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta said the higher voter turnout is a sign that these are charged times.
“This polarization has led to very strong feelings on both sides for the status quo or against the status quo. There is this great degree of passionate involvement on the sides of the voters who want to see their point of view carried. It’s not a laid back campaign at all, every party, every nook and cranny, there is a lot of excitement, and commotion. When things are not quite settled, when there are issues to be resolved, when there is a chance that your vote might make a difference, that is when people come out to vote,” Gupta stated.
There is no doubt that voter enthusiasm is at a new high. Political observers say this is the first election in which it became fashionable to vote, not just among the young, but also the urban, middle class, notorious for its voter apathy in the past. The proof: hundreds of selfies and photos with ink-marked fingers posted on Facebook and Tweets after each round of voting.
Sociologist Gupta traces the higher political awareness to an anti-corruption party - the Aam Aadmi Party - that made its debut in local elections in Delhi in December. While the party is not getting massive support on the national stage, Gupta said it helped draw out thousands of voters with its message that ordinary people can help change the system.
“That energized a lot of young people, and even older people to come out and vote. It broke that stigma of voting. It is this liberation of sorts that has carried through to this election. Voting is again kind of an “in” thing to do,” Gupta said.
Among those who had not voted in previous elections, but made sure they turned out this year is Raghav Gupta, a resident of Gurgaon near Delhi. The boom years of India’s growth were a great period for senior professionals like him, offering them opportunities for good career growth. But Gupta said that took a hit in recent years due to bad governance and corruption.
“The feeling of, if you work hard you do well in your career changed to saying that not just working hard for your career but also making sure you select right people for the government is important, and so this time it was very important to go and out and vote for the right person.”
Whatever the motivation for voters, for the Election Commission, the large turnout is a cause for satisfaction. They hope by the time the last votes are cast on May 12, India will have witnessed a record turnout.