Mumbaiites saved themselves from the usual ignominy of being India’s politically disinterested metropolis by turning out in large numbers to vote for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation elections held on Tuesday. The average voter turnout at the end of the polling day was assessed to be 55.53%.
The surge in enthusiasm and participation could be seen in some areas where, at the close of voting at 5.30pm, voters had to be turned away, queues at polling booths snaked for hundreds of metres, and polling was completed only around 8pm. The turnout must be seen in the context of lakhs of names missing from the electoral list; estimates are that between 10 and 11.5 lakh of Mumbai’s 91.8 lakh voters did not find themselves in the lists despite being registered voters.
The 55.3% turnout is a healthy 10.6% higher than the last municipal elections five years ago. This turnout is on par with that of the Lok Sabha elections in April-May 2014 at the height of the BJP’s belligerent campaign and the “Modi-wave”. Six months later, in October that year, as voters exercised their franchise in the state Assembly elections, the turnout had dropped by 4%.
It is worth remembering that the Lok Sabha elections, held barely four months after the dastardly terror attack in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 – which had motivated lakhs of distraught Mumbaiites to pledge greater civic engagement – the voter turnout was a poor 41.5%. While turnouts for national and local elections can be compared only in a limited way, it is still remarkable that the turnout was nearly 14% higher than the 2009 LS election this time .
What caused the rise in the turnout? What are its social and political implications? The initial assessment is that the unusually bitter acrimony between the Shiv Sena and BJP, allies in the BMC till a month back and partners in the state and central governments even now, may have brought out more of their supporters, given that both enjoy a strong cadre-based support and committed voters. It is also likely that Mumbaiites have been genuinely distressed by the appalling state of civic services in Mumbai and voted to send a message to political parties at the helm in BMC.
By Thursday afternoon, when the results of the BMC elections, along with other urban and rural local bodies across Maharashtra are declared, it will be clear which party stands to benefit by the increased voter turnout. Since the close of polling, leaders of both the Sena and BJP have claimed that their parties would have the advantage.
The conventional political wisdom is that a markedly higher turnout implies that the anti-incumbency factor has worked its magic which, in turn, means that the ruling party’s chances of returning to power are slim. However, empirical evidence has not borne this out. While studies of local election turnout and party performances are few and far between, those which mapped the two during national elections suggest that it’s a mixed bag: A high voter turnout does not always and necessarily imply an anti-incumbency vote.
In any case, the Sena and BJP are both ruling parties in the BMC. They have been together for more than 20 years. Both parties are incumbents and both have a shared responsibility to the city. But in a cleverly mounted campaign, the BJP remodelled itself as the main opposition party to the Sena. The chatter in the political circles also suggests that the BJP has spent nearly Rs180-200 crore, two-three times more than the Sena, on this election.
Does the turnout indicate greater civic engagement? It’s perhaps a start. In a city where many boast of being unaware of who their corporator is, any rise in civic engagement is a good sign. If a few more citizens can keep tabs on the BMC, which has not spent more than 40% of its budgeted amount on Mumbai in the last few years, the turnout would have meant something positive.