The timing of the Bihar elections ensured voters would not face rain or flood, nor the heat wave experienced during the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. Yet, voters showed their disinclination to come forward in large numbers despite an average turnout of 56.8% in the five-phase polls, the highest in all forms of elections since February 2005.
The turnout, particularly of women, has been encouraging but it pales in comparison to people’s participation in other states. For instance, Jharkhand clocked 66.42% in the 2014 assembly polls, Maharashtra 63.08%, J&K 65.52%, Odisha 73.65% and Haryana 76.13% that year, Madhya Pradesh 72.07% in 2013, and West Bengal 84.33% in 2011.
So what makes Bihar’s voters different from their counterparts elsewhere in India? Some poll-watchers feel many voters do not vote due to indifference to the electoral process while others attribute it to local issues that guide assembly polls. Bihar recorded a turnout of 56.26% in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls against the national average of 66.4%. The turnout in 2010 assembly polls was 52.67%.
“A major reason could be the illiteracy level in Bihar where people are not able to understand the importance of their votes in a democracy,” said DM Diwakar, former director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies. “Assembly polls are fought on local issues and selection of leaders. If the leaders are not of their choice or group, many people keep off the electoral process,” he said.
Migration is also a major factor, Diwakar said. “Most of these migrant labourers return home during festivals, and elections ending before their return have recorded low turnout. A number of migrant labourers cannot be expected to come to cast vote by using their leaves and spending money.”
As per the National Sample Survey Organisation data, an overwhelming 62% of Bihar’s wage earners live in other states, and this is nearly three times the national average.